Karen Balch of Lehigh Acres who is the manager of Our Daily Bread Community Pantry on Homestead Rd., two doors south of Christ United Methodist Church, says she is concerned about the need for food and clothes by Lehigh residents.
"Our numbers are rising as you can see by our statistics sheets," she said. In her hands were a report from June and July of this year
"In June we handed out bags of food to 2,284 people and in July, a statistical report just released, showed the number of people being given food rising to 2,486, an increase of 202 more people.
Dennis Bourguard says he appreciates being let in first to get food because of his disability and appreciates the food he receives.
"And we're seeing more people this month coming in and asking for food," she said. "I don't know when it will end, but it just seems that the recession we are going through is not getting better. There are so many people needing food, and we are but one of the agencies handing out free food to people in Lehigh."
Balch has been manager for two years and says she couldn't manage the facility without the help of an army of volunteers.
Our Daily Bread Community Pantry is located in a small house where food is stored and a garage filled with other items, such as clothing that is also available. And like the food, the clothes are free, too.
The food pantry is without doubt the largest in Lehigh and is supported by several churches including St. Raphael's Catholic Church, Harvest Ministries, Christ United Methodist Church.
"There are others and they all help by contributing food and money to buy food at reduced prices from the Harry Chapin Food Bank;," Balch said.
There are no forms to fill out about how much money you may have or not have or whether or not you have a job. You are only asked your name and how many people are in your family so volunteers can fill plastic bags with food enough to help those who cannot afford to buy food.
Those who come are greeted at the front door and a few people are escorted in and the person registers at a computer operated by a volunteer in the kitchen. Then the food recipient is escorted through the adjacent dining room and hall.
"We ask them what they need as our volunteers walk them through areas where food is lined up on shelves, all organized by other volunteers.
The food pantry at 1418 Homestead Rd. hands out food on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On Tuesday, the food pantry is open from 2 to 3:30 p.m. and deli meats, bread, produce and desserts or sweets are available.
On Thursdays, the food pantry opens at 11:30 a.m. and closes at 1:30 p.m. Food items include deli meats, bread, produce and again desserts and sweets. At 10:30 a.m., on Thursdays, those with pets are invited to come to get food for their dogs and cats.
Much of the produce over the past several weeks has come from the backyard where members of the Lehigh Garden Club have grown all types of produce, including lettuce, cucumbers, beans, and more.
"That is been of great help to us to supplement what we hand out," said Balch, who gives sometimes 60 hours or more a week at the food pantry. And it's the same with many of the other volunteers who help to make the food pantry work.
Among those volunteers who work at managing the food pantry, all from Lehigh, including Balch, are Paul Nystrom, the coordinator for the pantry. He is usually at the food pantry every day and makes sure the food items are put in the proper places, Dianne Denner, who also fills in to ask folks to donate cat and dog food for clients; Raphael Garcia, the outside supervisor. He is often the first person seen when someone comes to get food. Also, there are Josie Ramirez, the inside supervisor, Fernando Castillo and Sam Martin, and several others who give of their time. Castillo said there is a need for bikes to be donated because so many people don't have transportation because of the hard times.
Balch, the manager, said the food pantry also has needs. In addition to the foods and monies donated to the pantry, she said there is a need for an additional refrigerator and a freezer to store items. And there is a need for a used vehicle that runs.
As it is now, the volunteers use their own vehicles to travel to Fort Myers and other sites to pick up hundreds of pounds of food. Balch tries to give them gas for their cars, but she knows that the personal vehicles are subject to wear and tear.
"If someone can provide us with such a vehicle, it could be a write-off for them and very important for us," Balch said.
Since there is no place for parking at the food pantry, it is very important for the public to know they can park at the nearby church parking lot.
"We just don't have the room and there is no parking down the side street by our house," she said.
Before the food pantry opens, all the volunteers join together in a prayer that is said both in English and Spanish.
Balch says that prayer is important and it is never missed before opening. By the time the food pantry opens, there are often lines of people waiting and some have been there since 5 and 5:30 in the morning, she said.
From time to time, the food pantry has a yard sale to help raise money to buy food. Many in the community bring items that can be sold.
Balch can be reached at 239-745-2247 on her cell phone as there is no phone at the pantry. She encourages the community to donate items for their yard sales.
Many of the volunteers say they know how difficult it has to be for so many people in Lehigh who need help and many of they say they have experienced losing their homes and jobs in the past and know what it is to not be able to buy food.
Balch also said she wanted to make sure the word gets out to those who are homeless in Lehigh, those living in the woods and in their cars. She hopes people who read about the food pantry will let a homeless person know about the availability of food, no questions asked.
"But people in the community have been good to us, the three major supermarkets, the churches and even individuals who send money to the food pantry every month. Without them we could not do any of this," she said.
"The main thing we want people to know is that we will hand out food to anyone who needs it. We are more interested in helping them. We know they all are in difficult situations and we do not tell anyone they can't have food. We just want those who need food to know we ask nobody to fill out forms and we don't put limits on how often they can come to get food," she said.