By D. K. Christi
A woman came through the doors of the food pantry run by Interfaith Charities of South Lee holding the hand of a small child and pushing a carriage with another. She made an unusual and specific request: she needed a protein drink.
“The request was unusual, but just a day before, some protein drinks were donated and were in the back. I brought them out, and she began to cry,” said Cheryl Kelly, 71, a volunteer of six years. “‘This is what the doctor wanted for my ill child, but I could not afford it,’ she said between the tears.”
Similar scenes play out every week at Interfaith Charities, located in San Carlos Park just north of Estero. It’s built on the philosophy of neighbors helping neighbors. Starting as an effort of local churches in 1992, Interfaith Charities originally focused on helping the elderly with things like meals, transportation and minor home repairs.
Since then, Interfaith Charities has grown its services as a United Way House for the Estero/San Carlos Park area. In 2020, 1,240 households and 3,224 people benefited from the services of Interfaith Charities of South Lee (ICSL), according to Bonnie Olson, board chair.
The community service organization’s mission is to feed the hungry and provide hope and help for those in need, including families. ICSL is highly rated by Guidestar and Charity Navigator, funding programs and services with minimal administrative expenses thanks to the generosity of the local community. It’s a non-profit, non-denominational, multi-partner and multi-service good neighbor.
“Many recipients work in the services and helping professions,” said Olson.
Carmen Harris, 70, worked at the Lamb of God thrift store until her husband’s illness and recent passing in May. She left the store to care for him.
“I could get food for us from the ICSL pantry and now for me,” Harris said. “The staff members are kind and so helpful. Recently, they made copies of the
death certificate for me. They also sent some faxes and continue helping me as needed.”
Seniors surviving on minimal social security may be long-term pantry users, while other ICSL clients might need temporary help during a crisis.
“Shortly after the hurricane in Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria, Sept. 2017), a woman wandering in the pantry looked overwhelmed, and I asked if I could help,” recalled Kelly. “The young woman said, ‘I have 19 people from the hurricane living in my house, and I don’t know how I will manage.’ ICSL helped her and the hurricane refugees, much to her relief.”
Diverse circumstances can lead to a family being left short on money and needing to pay electric and water bills and fill an empty cupboard.
“We process one ton of food a day — coming in for sorting and going out to recipients. Nothing is wasted,” said Olson. “We also have grants and funding to assist with electric and water payments. Often, before seeking help, the bill is so high that restoring service is nearly impossible. The community needs to know we are here to help before it gets to that point.”
Executive Director Nancy Martin has been with ICSL for nearly 30 years.
“We need to be clear: We help everyone in our area,” she said. “If we can’t help, we know the right place to refer them. We have one requirement: registration with an address in our service area — on a bill, a lease, a piece of mail or identification — because funders and donors want to know the numbers served. That’s it. We don’t ask for proof of need or require forms or details. If you are in need, call us or walk in.”
With collaboration among local groceries and restaurants and donations from neighbors and food banks, the pantry processes tons of food a month, from non-perishables to fresh meat and vegetables, always seeking to provide the recipients with healthy food. Popular and currently needed staples include peanut butter, jelly and current-date baby formula, food and diapers.
Limited financial assistance for utility bills and referrals to assistance for rent and mortgage payments are also available. Business services include copying, faxing and notarizing documents and assisting with legal and job search matters — all at no cost to clients. Free volunteer IRS tax assistance from the VITA program is also available to anyone.
As a United Way partner, ICSL assists with referrals to partner agencies and can help with registering for services such as Medicaid and food stamps.
“We have over 400 volunteers at a time, though fewer in the summer when the part-time residents return to the north,” said Martin.
Volunteers cover the gamut of professions — construction workers, nurses, corporate executives, retirees, homemakers and students who need community service hours to graduate. According to Kelly, they share a common purpose: to help neighbors in need.
“I found a social group,” added Kelly. “We spend a lot of time together and are there for each other’s challenges and personal traumas. It’s a special family. The staff is wonderful.
“When I moved to Florida after a lifetime nursing career in ICU, I found ICSL a life-expanding experience, especially when I draw on my nursing knowledge to help a special family, even as I’m sorting in the pantry.”
Volunteering comes in many forms, from a major financial donation to donating pantry items or volunteering in the pantry to sort and shelve and restock.
ICSL takes no government funds and solely relies on the generosity of businesses, organizations and neighbors. A sudden downturn in income, medical issues or a pandemic can turn life completely around, and ICSL is there for a quick hand up before things get too overwhelming.
According to staff, volunteers and clients, a spiritual and loving quality fills the air at ICSL. A volunteer tells of a woman who was a “hugger” and had to temporarily stop during the pandemic.
“I live alone – the hugs here are all the human contact I may have until I come again,” she said.
Interfaith Charities is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and serves anyone living in Estero, San Carlos Park or South Fort Myers up to Gladiolus Drive. To volunteer, email Kim Varano at volunteer@ICSLee.org or call 239-267-3510. For more information on Interfaith Charities, go online to www.icslee.org.