Claire Begin packs up carrots into cardboard banana boxes at Good Shepherd Food Bank as fellow volunteer Rob Johnson looks on. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

AUBURN — The sudden demand last spring was so great that Good Shepherd Food Bank ran out of canned and shelf-stable food, twice, for the first time in memory. And there were so many unknowns: In the immediate days of the pandemic, staff weren’t sure if it was safe to reuse the banana boxes that food donations came in — how was COVID-19 spread, exactly?

The nonprofit instituted hazard pay. It gave out $800,000 in gift cards for the first time ever, hoping clients could find their own food in the grocery stores, and gave another $1.2 million to food pantries, schools and doctors’ offices that suddenly needed tents and masks to safely distribute cereal, rice and beans.

“When we looked at the impact of the spring, we spent an additional $6.5 million in those last four months on top of our regular budget,” said President Kristen Miale. “Thankfully, the money came in. We would have run out of food and people wouldn’t have had anything to eat. It was amazing.”

Good Shepherd, founded in a Lewiston apartment in 1981 and now serving the entire state, provided 27.2 million meals between July 2019 and June 2020, up from 25 million the year before.

It projects that it will provide as many as 32 million meals through next June.

The food bank is entering its traditional fundraising season, November to January, with some trepidation — people gave so generously last spring, can they afford to give again? — and watching the headlines. Winter always brings more need, but this year, with the pandemic and potential return to a lockdown, it could see more.

Miale is grateful for the support, a bit in awe of what everyone pulled off last spring and summer, and braced for 2021.

Should demand spike again, “We’ll just have to be ready to pivot, which we’ve already done once, so we’ll do it again,” she said.

Good Shepherd relies on more than 32,000 donors and thousands of volunteers making it all happen behind the scenes.

Today, meet three of those thousands and hear why they decided to pitch in.

Claire Begin, Good Shepherd Food Bank volunteer. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Claire Begin: The key to volunteering

For someone who doesn’t work there, Claire Begin is at the Good Shepherd Food Bank a lot.

Five-days-every-week a lot. Forty-hours-every-week a lot.

“My husband says, ‘Why do you go every day?’ I said, ‘Norm, we’ve got food. Other people don’t. We just need to give some time.’ And he understands,” said Begin of Lisbon.

For Begin, who retired from Dingley Press, the draw is two-fold: Lending a helping hand and spending time with her sister, Sharon Williams, who does work there and, Begin says proudly, has taught her well.

“I love being with other people here. They’re all amazing,” she said.

She’s kept up the breakneck volunteer pace for two years, arriving as early as 5:30 a.m., frequently inspecting and sorting.

“They’ve given me a key because I’ve been here for so long,” she said. “I’ll do whatever they ask me, I’m not picky.”

During Saturday inventory, Begin comes in for that, too. There’s a wall of thank-you cards at the food bank that remind her why.

“I’ve got a lot of energy until about 8 o’clock at night, that’s when I fall asleep,” she said. “I used to work 12-hour shifts, so it doesn’t bother me.”

Rob Johnson, Good Shepherd Food Bank volunteer. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Rob Johnson: From banking to boxing

Rob Johnson spent his 31-year career in banking. Three years ago, after retirement, he moved beyond donating to Good Shepherd and started volunteering.

“What became really apparent to me was how serious the food security issue was in the state of Maine,” said Johnson. “I still wanted to be active, and this is a physically demanding job. That part was really attractive.”

Twice a week, he and three fellow volunteers pack food boxes for seniors as part of a federal program, grabbing juice, canned vegetables and fruit, cereal and other shelf-stable food.

In a typical morning, they’ll pack 280 boxes or seven pallets’ worth.

Johnson, who lives in Cumberland Center, said his own reward is “the small benefit I’m making for those people who participate.”

“One of the guys I work with, he’s been doing it seven years,” Johnson said. “As long as I’m physically able, I’ll continue to do it.”

Ken Holt, Good Shepherd Food Bank volunteer. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Ken Holt: The drive to pitch in

Ken Holt visited the Good Shepherd Food Bank for the first time last October during a work-planned volunteer outing. He went back a few months later with another group of colleagues.

When the pandemic hit in March and his office went remote, Holt knew exactly where to spend the hours freed up by losing his daily commute from Lisbon to Scarborough.

By day, he’s a systems manager for Guiding Stars, a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize, Hannaford’s parent company.

“I’d always been kind of aware of (Hannaford’s relationship with Good Shepherd),” he said. “When I got there, I got to see that whole process and understand the value of it. It made it something that I felt was a good investment of my time to be able to reach out and assist with that.”

During a typical volunteer shift, he’ll sort food donations from Hannaford, Shaw’s and Walmart, inspecting for dents and expiration dates. He won’t have as much time when regular life and his commute resumes, but until then, he’s at the food bank twice a week for four to five hours at a stretch.

“It’s a way to give back a little that doesn’t cost you anything out of your pocket other than your time,” he said. “The benefit is you’re able to take perfectly good food that may have ended up in a landfill and get it redirected to somebody that can use it and improve their quality of life.”

Pete Lee, from the First Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, loads up his pickup truck with boxes of food from Good Shepherd Food Bank on a recent morning. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo


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