Unsung Heroes 2015: Jewish Food Pantry Volunteers

Volunteers of the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry

By PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special to the Jewish Light

Hungry to help heal the world, 190 volunteers welcome clients, take deliveries and sort, package and stock groceries at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry Monday through Friday so that individuals and families going through hard times have food for their tables. 

“The volunteers, men and women from all backgrounds, are totally dedicated to this organization. They work really hard to take care of the clients,” said Lenny Baer, who nominated the volunteers for recognition as Unsung Heroes. This was an inside job — Baer is one of those volunteers.

Baer has volunteered at HKJFP for six years. “I’ve worked in the office, helped people coming in for the first time,  worked in the kitchen and helped as a shopper. You could say I’ve done everything but the outside windows,” Baer said, laughing. 

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“We volunteers put in long days, serve a lot of people, and everyone who comes in is treated equally,” said Baer, a retired business owner who lives in O’Fallon, Mo. “I like that, and that’s why I nominated us.”

Working in three- and four-hour shifts, between 20 and 25 volunteers are on duty at the food pantry each day, helping an average of 8,000 people each month and providing almost 18,000 hours of service annually. School groups, groups doing a mitzvah project and groups from sheltered workshops also help from time to time. Judy Berkowitz, food pantry director, said, “Simply put, we could not do what we do without the volunteers.”

Marcia Mermelstein, coordinator at the HKJFP, agrees. “The volunteers — most of them retirees — are lifting, hauling, walking and schlepping nonstop, doing work that they would not be doing at any other place in their lives, and yet they have such commitment, such passion for the work,” she said.

“The volunteers give and give and give – their time, but also everything from sturdy shopping bags to scarves they have knitted for clients,” Mermelstein continued. “They truly are the most remarkable group of people I’ve ever worked with, and the warmest, funniest, kindest and most giving people that I have ever known.”

The Light talked to some of the volunteers to learn what they give — and what they get — from their work at the food pantry.

Carol Mitchell recently provided a cake to a client. “I was helping a woman make her next appointment when she mentioned that the date would be her 25th wedding anniversary. She told me she had had no idea this would be the circumstances in the couple’s married life,” Mitchell said. “I went to the kitchen and arranged for her to get a cake so she would have something nice for their anniversary.”

Mitchell, who lives in Chesterfield, has worked at the HKJFP for a year and a half. She said she had never had the opportunity to volunteer during the 30 years she worked for a computer distributor, and she signed up shortly after retiring. 

“I like talking to people, and I think this is important work,” Mitchell said. “I have been lucky all my life, and when I see so many people that need help getting food – well, I feel really lucky to be able to help. And how nice that now we volunteers are being appreciated.”

The thought of a child going to sleep hungry has always troubled Dr. Mark Pultman, 70, a retired dentist. Five years ago, he started working at the food pantry. “I felt if I could do something to contribute to lessening hunger in this area, that would be a significant contribution,” he said. Pultman helps clients shop for groceries, pointing out what is available.

Asked about any particularly touching moments, Pultman was ready. “When a client needs a can opener because they are living in their car, or a client tells you they are going to eat in the parking lot because they are so hungry, or when a client tells you they don’t want anything that needs refrigeration because they are living in a motel room, it brings the reality of what some families are going through,” he said.

“This past winter, a gentleman asked if we had any blankets because he was living in his car and was cold,” Pultman continued. “One of the young staff members took off his jacket and handed it to the man.  A real mensch, huh?”

Five years ago, Cheryl Stein chose to start volunteering at the HKJFP because she wanted to work within the Jewish community. “It has been really rewarding, and it makes me feel good that we have an agency that helps people,” said Stein, 59, a retired teacher from Creve Coeur.

Stein registers clients, and she knows her work makes a difference. “One day I was out, in a store, when a woman came up to me and said she knew me,” Stein said. “I couldn’t place her, and then she said, ‘You are that nice person who helped me at the food pantry.’ And then she hugged me.”

Dr. Gary Ratkin, a hematologist who retired from Missouri Baptist Medical Center, is one of several retired doctors who work as sorters in the warehouse. “It is such a wonderful experience,” he said. “We have volunteers and staff from all walks of life with all levels of education, and we all work hard and enjoy each other’s company.” Ratkin has worked at the HKJFP for about three years. He is 72 and lives in Creve Coeur. 

Once a week, Bill Levinson volunteers with his daughter, Judy Duneman. In 2005, after his wife, Ellen, died, Levinson returned to his native St. Louis from southern California, where he had worked as a camera accessory importer and distributor. He lives in Chesterfield.

“I wanted to do something constructive, give back, do something I knew my wife would appreciate,” Levinson said. “You get a certain amount of gratification from helping take care of people.” Levinson, who is 88, said he may “have the honor of being the oldest volunteer” at the pantry. “I try to do whatever they need done.” 

Duneman, 63, said she started volunteering at the food pantry because it was a great opportunity to spend time with her dad. A former employee of American Airlines, she has volunteered for about four years. Duneman lives in Creve Coeur. 

“I grew up in a charitable environment,” Duneman said. “My mom was a volunteer, even when she was working, and my grandma and her sisters volunteered too, with Hadassah, the League of Women Voters, the University City Day Care. Grandma always told me that if all you have is a quarter, give 10 cents.” 

Asked about being honored as Unsung Heroes, Duneman said,” It’s nice, but we all enjoy what we’re doing. None of us is doing this for a thank you.”