It is once again the time of year when, in addition to the general merriment that comes with the holiday season, people across the nation collectively take stock of what they have and what they feel grateful to have attained. While we amass friends and family and take in the barrage of music and classic movies, perhaps this year especially, we reflect on many of those folks who still struggle with maintaining essential needs for their families.
Despite the not-so-subtle cynicism many possess for the growing commercial aspect of the holidays, in the rural Hudson Valley, the essence of empathy remains steadfastly true. Throughout our area, as has been the case for generations, there remains coalitions of proactive folks who selflessly give to those in need. Organizations like food pantries and the creation of local blessing boxes are catalysts for giving throughout the year and define the true nature of what it means to be a neighbor – especially when others are facing financial hardship.
Stepping up to the plate
These charitable food systems are vital for food access for vulnerable people in nearly every community in the United States. The vast majority of individuals and families accessing food pantries and other programs like blessing boxes are food insecure, a fact that is hard for many to comprehend in the modern US. Still, despite the topic being seldomly addressed, many families in the area have limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods.
In Hillsdale, NY, two programs have stepped up to the plate to provide for those in need with the help and support of members in the community. The Roe Jan Food Pantry has been operating from various locations in Hillsdale for decades. From on-site essentials, to door delivery for the town’s elder population, the pantry has carried the torch for the food insecure for decades. Recently, the creation of The Hillsdale Blessing Box, located at the United Methodist Church at the intersection of Routes 22 and 23 has come to symbolize what it means when communities come together to give what they have. The Blessing Box, like those in other towns and villages, exists for the sole purpose of benefiting those in true need. It’s dedicated following on Facebook captures Hillsdale residents of all ages stopping casually by the box to drop off essential food and other products on a regular basis and has become a staple of the town center. We spoke with the leaders of both programs, Betty White who has been with the Roe Jan Food Pantry for the better part of 40 years, and Rene Gibson, a lifelong Hillsdale resident who heeded the call to action for the town’s Blessing Box. Both discussed their involvement and how they’ve discovered the true spirit of charity.
Rene Gibson: Hillsdale Blessing Box
How did Hillsdale’s Blessing Box come about? How did you find the process to be?
A little more than a year ago, two customers sat across from each other at Hillsdale’s Crossroads Restaurant. They were sitting at the “community table” which easily allows people to begin conversations, even with strangers. That morning, a man in his 70s told the story of a recent health scare that he had. He said that it made him realize how precious life was and wanted something that would make people feel cared for and something that would encourage community spirit. He felt the book box at the IGA, which let’s people enjoy books that others’ have left for the taking, had done that for him.
He also had heard that some towns around the country also have something called a “Blessing Box.” The idea behind a Blessing Box is that people in a community will stock it with non-perishable food and toiletries or other items such as laundry detergent or toilet paper. He wanted such a box in Hillsdale.
It took awhile to get the box built and even longer to get permission to put it up in a public area. But with patience and perseverance this man’s idea has become a reality. The box is located on the north side of the Hillsdale United Methodist Church at the edge of their parking lot. The church is that beautiful white colonial church at the intersections of Routes 22 and 23 in Hillsdale. When this box was first put up, and then filled by community members, it would take days for it to empty. Now it will often be emptied in less than eight hours after it has been filled.
How would you describe the Blessing Box’s impact on the Community?
After a while, people began to ask, “Do you think people are taking advantage of the box?” There is always a chance that might be happening, but those who choose to put things in the box, as a way to help others in need, also choose to believe that more good will come from the giving than bad will come from anyone taking advantage. We put a notebook in the box that asked, “Tell us what this box means to you,” and we received several responses that I’d like to share. The first one said, “We are a family of nine and this box means so much in times when I can’t make it to the [Roe Jan Food] pantry. This is a great back-up and a blessing for my children. Thank you for having this here to help. This box is a blessing. Thank you.”
Then someone wrote, “Your program is a life saver! Thank you for caring!” Another entry said, “Thank you so much. With a family of six and only one income, this is a life saver. Bless You.”
Next entry: “Family of five and this box has been a huge blessing. You have no idea how many meals you have helped bring to our table. God bless.” Then a person wrote; “To be honest, I struggle with addiction. Without this box, I’d starve, paying bills while having this monkey hooked on my back leaves me broke. Thank you so much for the food. God Bless.” And finally, “Nice. Love it! Will be leaving stuff now that I know it is here. Thanks. God Bless.”
Is there a connection between the Blessing Box and the Roe Jan Food Pantry?
A common misconception is that the Blessing Box is part of the Hillsdale Methodist Church and that they stock it. The folks at the church have generously allowed the box to be put on their property, but this is a community box and depends on the community to fill it. Members of the church, as community members, do add to it’s contents of course. Another misconception is that it is part of the Roe Jan Food Pantry. It is not. They do however add items from time to time but their focus is the pantry itself, which is open on Fridays from 10am to noon. The Roe Jan Food Pantry is housed below the sheriff’s substation, next to Cobble Pond on Route 23 in Hillsdale.
How can folks help the Blessing Box grow in Hillsdale?
As mentioned before, the Blessing Box is a community box that needs the help of everyone that is able. It is a good sized box and can easily hold over 50 canned items, mixed with dried goods, cereal and toiletries. So far, it has emptied so quickly that there has been no issue with things freezing, but on especially cold days it would be best to leave items that will not freeze. Suggested items, no matter what the temperature would be things such as pastas, powdered milk, dried potato mixes, cereals, sugar, oatmeal, toilet paper, paper towels, unscented laundry soap, breads, toothbrushes, freeze dried vegetables, soup mixes, etc. On days that do not get much below 32 degrees, the items that are most popular are pasta sauces, vegetables, evaporated milk, canned meats and tuna, peanut butter and jelly, peanuts, crackers, tooth paste, shampoos, unscented soaps, creams, children’s vitamins, and soups.
This box has been utilized more than anyone anticipated so we really do need as many people as possible to help us keep it full. Someone suggested that various groups such as the Boy Scouts or specific businesses might want to commit to filling it at least once a week. That would be wonderful! This does not have to be an official commitment, it can just be something you do on your own and at your discretion. As it says on the box, “Take what you need. Leave what you can. Above all be Blessed.” Those of us that have the funds, the desire and the ability to give, are as blessed as those who receive.
For questions regarding Hillsdale’s Blessing Box or to ask how you can help, contact Rene Gibson at (518) 325-3161 and leave a message. The Hillsdale Blessing Box is located at the United Methodist Church of Hillsdale which is located at the intersection of Routes 22 and 23 in Hillsdale, NY.
Betty White: Longtime leader at the Roe Jan Food Pantry
How did you become involved with the pantry and how have you seen it grow over time?
I started with the pantry as a patron probably about 30 or 40 years ago as a member of the church here in Hillsdale. I began when one of my fellow church members became injured and needed help getting essential items. That’s what got me to the pantry and I couldn’t stop there – there are so many local families who need help. When the pantry started it was very basic, we only had three meats and they weren’t always available. With help from the Hillsdale Methodist Church, the pantry started to expand with the help of new leadership. We changed the hours and some of the basics in how it was run and we have grown since then.
What are some of the essentials the pantry provides and how important are these services in our area?
Extremely important. I feel it might come as a surprise to many folks how many people are out there that are in desperate need of assistance but are too proud to ask. Many of the elderly in our area are making difficult choices between food and heating oil. Recently, we received a call from a homeless person who had been taking care of his family with little financial support. For me, it is unbelievable to think that is happening around here. It is really important to help folks, even if it means just giving people a meal. We stock local, fresh produce, dairy and fill numerous grocery bags for people once a month.
How has the pantry changed since the start of the pandemic?
During those months when folks, especially the elderly, couldn’t leave home, we were so fortunate to be aided by Doorstep Deliverers – a group of volunteers here in town that offered free delivery of groceries to elderly, immuno-compromised, and otherwise at-risk community members during the COVID-19 outbreak. We never seem to have enough people to volunteer at the pantry so that was an essential service that they provided for us.
Even now, parents who need to quarantine so that their children can go back to school are in need of our services, so we do deliver on occasion.
Where do you think the pantry will go from here?
I hope to see the pantry at least continue as it is, with more community outreach for our elderly residents. We have had elderly patrons every month for the past 30 years, but some of the older folks will only take essentials once a month either because they are unable to travel or do not want to be seen as a burden so we must continue our efforts to proactively provide for them.
We also have a great need for volunteers, especially youth volunteers. We do get help from local students during Thanksgiving and the holidays and I love having them around. Their energy and optimism will help continue the legacy of the Roe Jan Food Pantry.
The Roe Jan Food Pantry is open on Fridays from 10am to noon, due to the pandemic and other limitations, the Roe Jan Food Pantry asks that folks place their orders by Wednesday for pickup on Friday. The pantry is located below the Sheriff’s substation, next to Cobble Pond on Rt 23 in Hillsdale. If you need assistance at other times you can call Vernetta Moore at (413) 446-9431 or Betty White at (518) 441-2789. Financial support can also be sent to the Roe Jan Food Pantry at P.O. Box 475 in Hillsdale, NY.