St. Bernard’s Pantry a Testament to Faith and Perseverance

Story by Father Thaddeus Rettger

In December of 2016 the Saint Bernard conference of Saint Vincent De Paul was asked to assist the food pantry at Carrolltown. In the previous months, the Patton conference and the Ebensburg conference had assisted. The pantry was in difficult circumstances and in danger of closing. The Saint Bernard conference was asked to take over the distributions. The members of the St. Bernard Conference took things very seriously and made a strong commitment to personally see to it that the needy would continue to get food assistance. Within two weeks we were informed that a new director was needed. Fr Thaddeus O.S.B., pastor of Saint Bernard approached his parishioner Nancy McMullen and asked her to consider the position explaining that it would take perhaps less than 10 hrs a month. Nancy graciously accepted. Thus began what would become a major commitment of dedicated service on Nancy’s and the members of the Saint Vincent de Paul conference part. You might say that the saga of full ownership and dedication had begun. Little did we know what lied ahead. Nancy knew nothing about food pantry operations and was just getting to know the process in those first few weeks, and was rebuilding morale of the clients who were worried that we would close when she (and us) was hit with a bombshell. She was informed that we would have to move! We would be able to work at the Carrolltown location until we were able to relocate. To move meant that we would have to find suitable sites to rent and be paying rent every month into the future, or find older/abandoned buildings that would require major renovation before we could even begin pantry operations, or start from the ground up and BUILD A NEW FACILITY that would serve our purpose well into the future. It did not take long to realize that nothing less than a new facility was the best approach, even though many thought we were “crazy.”

Nancy, Father Thaddeus, and Jody (Nancy’s husband) pitched the idea. What happened next was vision and dogged determination to have a new facility that would fulfill our mission to serve those in need of food assistance. Our conference members enthusiastically embraced the idea An amazing team began the process of making it happen. A search for suitable land began.

Nancy found the picture of Jesus walking with the Apostles carry baskets of food feeding the hungry. Associated with the picture was the Scripture: JESUS SAID: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” That became the theme of the SVDP Saint Bernard Food Pantry’s mission. A strategic plan packet was developed which included the Mission, the Need, The region covered, the Solution, Funding Plan, donation request to individuals, businesses and organizations, cement footprint for building and parking apron, building floor plan, electrical needs, plumbing needs, parking lot layout and a media release.

Meanwhile, The plan was based upon projections/estimates for the next 30 years. Nancy continued overseeing the operations of the pantry at Carrolltown while deeply involved in the details of the strategic plan. Even though we had knowledgeable people in every category in the process the first estimates on the building size was too small, the estimates on cost was less than half of the final cost, the estimate of the time needed to build was too short. The timeline estimate on raising the funds on the other hand was way too long. With help from Jody (Nancy’s husband) and Kevin McMullen (Nancy’s father-in-Iaw) Land was found, The Hastings Area Industrial Association sold the land at a price that could be considered a donation price. By the time ground was broken in the Fall of 2017 many changes took place. The enthusiasm never waned. Nancy, Jodie and Fr Thaddeus met with the Executive Director of the Saint Vincent de Paul Society of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Sonny Consiglio, to request approval for Capitol expenditures for the project even though we already had put the strategic plan in motion and already raised over $12,000. Seemingly hesitant at first, after seeing how detailed the strategic plan was, the progress, the dedication and commitment of Nancy and the team involved in the project was Sonny dug in to get everything approved and within weeks had secured a $35,000 grant from Walmart. Shortly after Nancy secured $16,000 for Allstate. Still a lot of money was needed and thru Father Thaddeus’s fund raising skills and Nancy’s grant writing abilities and the help of volunteers and donors the new pantry now 40 by 92 feet, fully equipped with cooler, freezer, shelving, tables etc. opened in November of 2018 less than two years after Nancy became director. By this time $240,000 was raised and a $55,000 loan secured. Special mention goes to Sheetz who donated shelving, coolers and freezers. This amazing accomplishment was the combined work and generosity of the entire Saint Bernard Saint Vincent de Paul Conference which was acknowledged by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul of Diocese Altoona-Johnstown with the reception of the Frederic Ozanam award.

Nancy and the Saint Bernard Conference could be proud of what was accomplished. However this was only the beginning of what was to come. At the open house, Nancy was approached to take on the Produce to People program. Within a month Nancy was approached to take on the Blandburg pantry operations as a mobile operation as that pantry was closing. What started out to be “less than 10 hours a month” now had grown into a major commitment for Nancy and all the volunteers who by now had taken full ownership of the mission: The Saint Vincent de Paul Society discerns and responds to he needs of the poor in many ways and in particular through its food pantry serving the northern Cambria County area…The food pantry becomes the voice of the poor by using the many resources available to obtain supplemental food goods available from the many diverse sources and seeing that it reaches the hands of those in need. We live by the Gospel values and Vincentian Spirituality. Jesus said, “When I was hungry, you gave Me food…” We see the image and likeness of God in the hungry and we intend to give Him food.

By March of 2019 Nancy had obtained grants exceeding $40,000. Including another $17,000 from Allstate Helping Hands. The pantry went from serving less than a 100 families a month under the TEFAP (Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program) and 50 Seniors a month under the CSFP (Commodity Supplemental Food Program) to serving 160 families a month under TEFAP, 60 seniors a month CSFP and 500 families a month under the Produce to People Program. The numbers of volunteers increased from 15 – 20 to over 40.

Donations from every source increased both in goods and cash. Even more amazing the loan had been paid off. Our efforts could be focused upon the heart of our mission. The area scout troops had become very involved gathering over 2000 lbs of food during the holiday season. But the needs of our area continued grow and so did the growth of the SVDP Saint Bernard Pantry as Nancy and our volunteers responded to those needs. As COVID 19 struck the Produce People shut down. Nancy responded by accepting prepacked produce thru what we referred to as COVID emergency relief from our Johnstown Food bank supplier and also convincing the Produce to People to ship produce and other food good thru other means. When the Free Milk program was offered (2000 gallons every two weeks) thru Nancy’s efforts and our volunteers willingness to live up to the mission we began that program. All of these programs were offered too many pantries but we were the ones to meet the needs. We were informed that out of 40+ pantries we were the only one to run free milk program. As of Sept. 2020 the Free milk program has been suspended. But that does not deter our director Nancy and the volunteers. Nancy is exploring the possibility of the Farmers to Families program. In the process Nancy has secured another $37,000+ $20.000 was a direct result of our outstanding effort in caring for the food insecure. And another $17,000 from Allstate Helping Hands Program.

To give a snapshot, during the month of August the pantry distributed 4000 gallons of milk, 600 produce boxes, 260 TEAP boxes, 60 CSFP boxes, equaling 40 TONS of food. Plus other food assistance. Using the standard reporting system of every time a family receives one of the programs assistance it is counted as a family unit we served 3020 family units in August of 2020. The volunteer hours were in excess of 465 hours. Since Nancy accepted the directorship 30,000 family units have been served. 450 TONS of food have been distributed and 20,000 volunteer hours should have been logged. The SVDP Saint Bernard Food Pantry and Nancy have changed the heart and well-being of the region. Providing food stability for the food insecure far into the future.

Even as the ink dried on this overview, Nancy has secured the Farmers’ Market program for the SVDP St Bernard Pantry. This program will provide every week 500 or more boxes to families of the region. The boxes will include a gal of milk, 25 lbs of fruit and vegetables 7 lb of meat and 5 lb of cheese. So her efforts continue ……..

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