By Sean Bowes

In these tough economic times, Social Security payments, food stamps and other government assistance are still not putting enough food on the table for many families. The Helping Hands Pantry in Wesley Chapel is trying to fill some of that void for needy Pasco County residents.

If you’ve ever driven down S.R. 54 on a Wednesday afternoon, chances are you have you seen the crowd that assembles outside of the Atonement Lutheran Church of Wesley Chapel. Many of the visitors are jobless, some are homeless and others just need a helping hand. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. each Wednesday, the small church transforms into a food pantry which hands out hundreds of bags of food to any individual or family who needs a little help. The program is aimed at residents who cannot afford the groceries they need to buy each week.

“Even if you think you make too much money to qualify to receive (the pantry’s) food, we’ll help you out,” says Yvette Williams, assistant director of the program. “We try to not turn anyone away.”

Typically, Helping Hands serves between 150-180 families each week. The non-profit organization hands out numbers to each Pasco County resident outside, and lets in five people at a time to collect their groceries for the week, at zero cost to the shopper.

Normally, people start lining up outside around 7 a.m., sometimes even earlier, to be first in line to enter the church and fill their bags from the impressive smorgasbord of items, including everything from breads and cookies to a variety of fresh produce and frozen meat. Volunteers set up makeshift grocery aisles every Tuesday, carrying food supplies from an air-conditioned storage shed behind the church to get ready for the rush of people the next day.

“They always have plenty of canned foods and bread,” said Christal Poitevint, a Shady Hills woman who commutes 40-minutes each way every week to stock up on food for her family, “There is at least enough so you have something to eat.”

Many people like Poitevint use the program in addition to food stamps; because, she says, food stamps “aren’t always enough” to fill their plates.

According to Carla Haberland, the director of Helping Hands Pantry, the organization gave out more than 280,000 lbs of food to 26,866 individuals last year. Hablerland says at this point, the most difficult thing is not really finding enough food for the residents, but staffing enough volunteers to help set up the grocery aisles and assist people with their shopping.

The pantry collects all of its food from local individuals, the USDA and other churches in Wesley Chapel, as well as stores like Sweetbay, Bagelicious, and Walgreens. Volunteers for the organization come from all over the area and students from youth groups like the Wesley Chapel High National Honor Society volunteer at the pantry to earn some community service hours.

While the program appears to be a smooth running operation, Haberland says there are still ways it could be improved to help out the community more efficiently. She also says the program needs the use of a larger storage shed, as the pantry’s current one is too small to handle the amount of food delivered each week.

For more information about volunteering or donations for Helping Hands Pantry, call 973-2211, or Email Atonement Lutheran Church is located at 29617 S.R. 54.


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