Food from five storage areas of the Harrison Food Bank, 176 Waterford Road, are stacked in the parking lot for distribution to as many as 500 families. Thanksgiving week requires extra volunteer hands and hours. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

HARRISON — Every Tuesday assembly lines take over the Harrison Food Bank at 176 Waterford Road.

By noon, cars are lined up down the road, waiting to be ushered into the parking lot where trunks will be filled with a week’s worth of provisions by volunteers.

They are a dedicated crew. It does not matter if it’s 95 degrees and humid, biting cold and windy, pouring rain or driving snow. If the weather is too bad for people to drive the distance to pick up food, volunteers  return the next day to make sure neighbors have another chance to load up.

But keeping the food bank operating takes more than just a few hours  Tuesday. The organization’s three box trucks travel roads all over the state other days of the week, picking up pallets of donated food that get organized onsite.

On Mondays, Fridays and Sundays volunteers are called to sort fresh produce, deli and baked goods, the frozen foods and the meat. They organize it all for another crew to make boxes and prep them with nonperishables before the next distribution day.

They show up to do their part. Some are new recruits and others have been around since the doors opened five years ago. And they all love what they do.

A Facebook post was pleading for more volunteers to help handle the Thanksgiving volume amid the cold so I dropped by the food bank last Tuesday to add an extra set of hands and to see the effort the volunteers put in to fight food insecurity.

Jane Riseman, the group’s volunteer coordinator put me to work, bagging up dairy, deli and frozen foods and running a “U-boat” of prepped boxes from the building to the Thanksgiving assembly line. She also gave me a tour for a behind-the-scenes perspective.

First, I helped volunteers fill bags for weekly pickup clients.

“The fresh veggies, the non-frozen deli, fruit, breads and desserts and the frozen foods, they all come from the refrigerated trailer,” Riseman told me, pointing out where the bags were with basic instructions to fill each with a variety of goods.

My first challenge? How to open plastic bags in the wind while wearing a mask and gloves. One of the volunteers suggested I run a couple fingers on some frozen food, which would dampen my gloved finger and help part the plastic. Along with three or four others, we loaded each bag in a cart that someone would promptly push away to be packed in the backs of the vehicles winding through the parking lot. Then they would bring back an empty cart for us to fill.

A similar group was set up nearby. According to Riseman, those volunteers were packing boxes with boxed foods, two chickens and another meat, miscellaneous items, and pet food. In the center of the parking lot still more volunteers were packing Thanksgiving boxes with squash, onions, potatoes, milk, eggnog and strawberries so another crew could put them in the vehicles.

Being unfamiliar with the flow, I had to make sure to not get in the way of those who had to move the packages from each assembly line or were racing to load the vehicles as quickly as possible.

Bonnie Goodwin of Harrison was leading the group handling Thanksgiving boxes.

“I am adding red and yellow onions, two bags of salad and some eggnog,” Goodwin said. “Over there, they are adding the fruit, bottles of juice and some flour. One of the parking guides is distributing bouquets of flowers that were brought in. He’s walking down the road handing them out to the people waiting in line.”

“Everything here is from the Good Shepherd Food Bank,” Riseman said. “They came this morning with a tractor-trailer that we had to unload from the road. We will have 35 volunteering at any given time today.

“Last night we needed a crew (to make boxes) and unfortunately didn’t get very many,” she said. “Bonnie and three other volunteers loaded more than 400 boxes of the base nonperishables inside. Those boxes are getting hauled down here into the parking lot from inside. Bonnie was here for 10 hours yesterday and she will be here all day today.”

Goodwin is one of the food bank’s original volunteers from five years ago. She comes every Monday, Tuesday and Friday, and any other time they call her to help.

“Monday is packing, Tuesday is distributing,” Goodwin said. “Usually I work inside, making up boxes for weekly food. I usually do between 140 and 200. I work with others and we do it all together, but today I knew I’d be needed out here. They’re inside doing boxes, and I’m out here doing boxes. That’s where we are.

“Today we’ll be here until everything is done and people are happy for the holiday, and the kids get fed. That’s all I can say,” Goodwin said.

Riseman has volunteered since last summer but quickly took on expanding responsibilities. As the food bank’s first and only volunteer coordinator she knows everyone by name and what their normal “job” is.

“I started the end of July,” she said. ”I came in and said I wanted to help and for the first two weeks they had me breaking down boxes.

“I’ve worked my way up,” she said. “I saw that there was a lack of volunteers, and this was back when it was 90 degrees. Or in pouring rain and lightning, working under these pop-up tents and plugging along. I kept hearing people say we really need a volunteer coordinator so I thought, ‘well if you need one.’ That’s all it took.”

Riseman’s job is tough and unending. On Monday she set her schedule of volunteers for every task but by Tuesday four people called out.

“And I understand, it happens,” she said. “Especially a week like this. It’s a flowing population that I am working with. But I have a group of 35-40 people who are steadfast and true. This place could not run without them. The days we don’t distribute or make boxes, we’re unloading trucks. We have three panel (box) trucks.

“The Harrison Food Bank trucks make runs three days a week, Monday, Friday and Sunday,” Riseman said. “Then we need people to unload. The trucks are full. The drivers are the ones who load the trucks and when they get back they need help. We do an assembly line for perishables into the refrigerated trailer, then back up to the building to unload the nonperishables, the canned goods and root vegetables. The meat goes into a walk-in meat locker or (one of) five freezers.”

Riseman led me inside where Goodwin normally would be to see how the operation unfolds there.

“One thing about Bonnie,” Riseman said. “She is like the mama bear. She goes in and cooks for us, chili or chop suey, so that the workers are fed when they come in. She is a profound volunteer, just fantastic.”

Inside are three sections where volunteers packed boxes with different items.

“Here they are making boxes for next week,” she said. “They start with nonperishables and they will fill and empty this whole row of shelves with boxes four or five times today.

Mary Ann Brown from South Paris was among the volunteers and paused to talk about her role at the food bank.

“I work Tuesdays and Fridays, sometimes Sundays,” she said. “Today we’ve done between 400 and 500 boxes.”

Brown began volunteering at the Harrison Food Bank two years ago, after she moved from Bridgton to South Paris.

“I used to live in Bridgton and volunteered there for a number of years,” she said. When I moved I figured it was too long a drive all that way. So I decided to volunteer here in Harrison. I love it, I really do.

“It gets me out and I enjoy it,” she said. “I recently lost my husband so I’m not home by myself. I get to chitchat and I like to help. I don’t have much myself, but I bring in extra clothes that I don’t need, upstairs. People can go upstairs and take what they want, it’s free.”

Moving to a different aisle Riseman spoke more about the challenges of coordinating shifts and schedules.

“We have volunteers come for two to three hours and work in blocks,” she said. “It’s hard to commit because they’re not looking for a job, people want to volunteer. I understand that so I offer a time, like 11-2. And they can decide if they want to come earlier, or stay later, but I need to staff that 11-2. That is starting to work for me. There are always some that can’t make it, and you have to let it go and line up the next one.”

Among the Tuesday volunteers were people I never saw. Earlier, local Rotary groups loaded up their vehicles to deliver boxes of food to elderly clients that either cannot get out or have to avoid any possible exposure to the coronavirus. There is also a truck that comes from Rumford and brings a dedicated delivery to that area.

Melissa Wells of Waterford is one of dozens of volunteers working to fight food insecurity in Western Maine. She helps at the Harrison Food Bank, 176 Waterford Road, two days a week. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

I first met Melissa Wells outside filling bags but I encountered her again on the second floor of the food pantry, sending the prepped boxes down the stairs on a makeshift cardboard shoot so Riseman and I could load U-boats and move the food out to the center of the parking lot, where Goodwin was making sure they would be loaded with food for Thanksgiving meals.

“I’ve been volunteering for just a month and a half,” she said, explaining that she and her husband had recently retired. “I have free time on my hands so I wanted to give back to the community. We’ve been so blessed and I want to help. It’s only five minutes from home so it’s convenient.”

“She has already become my protégé for volunteer coordination,” Riseman added. “I need all the help I can get.”

“When I started here I saw that there is definitely a need for help,” Wells said. “I’ve been coming in Mondays and Tuesdays.”

Together Riseman and I carefully guided the loaded U-boats down a graveled knoll and in between the waiting vehicles to provide enough boxes to keep Goodwin’s crew in the center of the parking lot going as the trail of clients continued to drive through, trunks and back gates open.

Riseman marveled at the dedication of everyone bustling around us, doing their part to make sure Mainers throughout the region had food on their tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. She was also affected by the needs of so many.

“There is no judgment here,” she said. “At times I’ve heard people say ‘I’ve seen pictures of trucks here that look better than mine.’ But everyone has their own story.

“We don’t deny anybody,” she said. “We don’t check up on them. If someone comes in and says they need food, they get food. Just like that. That’s what people need (right now). Some people come for someone who is a shut-in, or for an elderly family member. We ask what they need and if they say ‘three families,’ that’s what they get.”

Those wanting to volunteer at the Harrison Food Bank may contact Riseman at 207-743-4686.


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