Feeding the hungry with care and compassion
by Greg Eckerle
As coordinator of St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry and Office of Emergency Assistance in Evansville, Indiana, Sister Donna Marie Herr sees the poverty in visitors’ faces way too often — from the ailing grandmother to the most innocent of children. And her heart goes out to them, day after day.
It’s changed her attitude between her wants and her needs.
“I find I want a little simpler life when I think of what people don’t have,” she says. “I mean, I can go to the refrigerator any night and get a snack. A lot of people can’t do that.”
Like the 32,000 low-income people that jam the food pantry every year. They’ve lost their jobs, or they’re disabled, they’re trying desperately to provide for their family, they can’t pay all their bills.
“Everyone has a right to food,” says Sister Donna Marie. “We’re just grateful that we can help.”
Relying entirely on donations and grants, the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry buys about $75,000 worth of food each year to hand out to needy families, and also accepts loads of donated food that kind souls bring in. It is part of the city’s seven-pantry Emergency Food Pantry System, and is by far the system’s largest one, serving 72% of the total eligible households.
But even with all that, it’s never enough. Sister Donna Marie’s stories will warm your heart, or break your heart.
There’s the woman who comes in every two months with a donation of $15. She used to come to the pantry to get food, and now delights in giving something back.
“It’s small, but to me it’s a very big thing,” says Sister Donna Marie.
There’s the grandmother with her two grandchildren that proudly hand over the proceeds from their lemonade stand.
There’s a grandmother that came with a grandchild who had said, “Isn’t it about time to take some food to the pantry?”
Sister Donna Marie smiles. “Isn’t it great the example they’re setting? You give. You help out those in need. I’m just so in awe of the generosity of people.”
And so wishful she could come up with a permanent solution for the people continually scrambling to find food.
She thinks of a woman who came whose teeth were rotting out.
“She told me her teeth hurt so badly. So I carried her groceries out to her car, and saw two children sitting inside. They just had the look of poverty on their faces. And the car, oh, it was falling apart. You can just see the hardship in their lives.”
Another woman, who worked for a dentist, got a speck of blood in her eye, developed hepatitis, couldn’t work anymore, lost her health insurance, all eventually contributing to a divorce. She sadly told a volunteer she never thought she’d be going to a food pantry.
The other side of the operation, the Office of Emergency Assistance, fields requests from people with a variety of urgent needs — maybe helping pay their rent, their water or electric bills, or they need furniture or appliances.
Sister Donna Marie says it’s very hard for some to come in, it’s a blow to their pride, they don’t want to admit they’re struggling.
But through it all, she keeps smiling and greeting people warmly with Benedictine hospitality. It’s noticed, by visitors and volunteers.
Sidney Brown, an African-American customer, says in a lowered voice, “There’s a lot of places around here where they treat you by your skin,” pointing to his arm. “But these people here don’t. They do a good job of helping everybody. They make it easy on us, they treat us right, with respect. Sister Donna Marie, she’s just nice.”
Brown, 71, hears a lot of people say how much the pantry helps them. “It’s a gift,” he says. And despite his situation, Brown keeps God in his life. “Yes, sir. Every day. Every time I get up, he woke me up this morning. A lot of people don’t have God in their life, that’s not a good thing.”
If Brown makes a little extra money, he even tries to help others. “It makes me feel good to help somebody else.”
That attitude is heartily shared by St. Vincent de Paul’s 90 volunteers, 65 of whom are scheduled regularly to work a half-day a week. Sister Donna Marie says, “It’s wonderful working with all these volunteers. They have a real care and a real respect for people that come here. They’re very dedicated, compassionate, and have generous hearts.”
The volunteers say much the same about Sister Donna Marie.
“She’s the greatest, believe me,” says Jeanette Beaven. “She treats people great. I just can’t say enough about her. I love her.”
Erma Pfeiffer and Terry Drone both remarked about how she’s “always smiling.”
“She helps with everything,” said Pfeiffer. “She’ll do dishes, she’ll stock food. She has to get all the volunteer workers together, I think that’s the hardest part.
“She’s easy to work with,” said Drone. “She’s got a very good personality and is always there to help.”
The volunteers bond by praying together twice a day. And it’s an appropriate prayer: “Lord Jesus, you who willed to become poor, give us a heart directed toward the poor; help us to recognize you in them — in their hunger, their loneliness, and their misfortune. Strengthen us, so that we may serve you in them, and may one day be united with you and them in your kingdom.”
Another of Sister Donna Marie’s favorite stories is the man who began shaking in the pantry’s waiting room, about to go into a diabetic lull. He asked for some orange juice, which she quickly supplied. Whenever he’s seen her since then, he smiles broadly and says, “Orange juice.”
“That really touches me,” she says. “It makes you feel humble. Here’s a man who doesn’t have anything materially, but has such a richness of attitude, and is so grateful for the smallest thing.”
As Sister Donna Marie often says, people may forget what you do for them, but they won’t forget how you make them feel.
This story was published in the Fall 20ll issue of Seek.Pray.Share. Sister Donna Marie Herr continues to serve as St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry coordinator.