Vestal church’s food pantry sees significant increase in clients

By Eileen Jevis
Staff writer

The clients who turn to the food pantry at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Vestal are greeted by warm, welcoming and friendly volunteers who work tirelessly to meet their needs. Prior to the COVID pandemic, the parish served approximately 60 households which accounted for 140 individuals. These days, six committed staff members and 30 volunteers, led by director Julie Slattery, serve 160 families comprising 490 individuals each month.

Slattery said the reasons for the increase in clients are varied. “Many of our clients can be classified as the working poor. They have two or more jobs to keep their heads above water. They live paycheck to paycheck and rarely have enough money left over,” said Slattery. “If they follow their budget closely, they manage to get by. However, if there is an unexpected bill or an increase in an expense, they find themselves in a downward spiral.”

The reality for these individuals is not uncommon throughout New York State and across the country. CNN Business released data collected from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in an article published on Sept. 13, 2022. The data shows that food costs rose 11.4% over the past year, the largest annual increase since May 1979. The report indicates that egg prices soared 39.8%, flour rose 23.3%, milk increased 17% and bread jumped 16.2%.

As a result of these skyrocketing grocery prices, Slattery said, clients have to make difficult choices each month on where to spend their money. “In addition to food costs, everyday living expenses like heating costs, insurance, gas and medical bills are just some of the expenses that families struggle with. “Everyone who comes to the pantry has their own story. They never thought they would be in this situation. We see seniors who never dreamed the prices for everyday items would skyrocket.”

At right: With the help of 30 volunteers, Julie Slattery, director of the Food Pantry at Our Lady of Sorrows in Vestal, serves 490 people each month.

Slattery said some of these seniors may now have their adult children and grandchildren living with them. Death and serious illness have also been a factor in some households trying to make ends meet, explained Slattery. “Those who now only have one income, especially for those on a fixed income, experience drastic consequences,” she said. “We also serve people on permanent disability due to severe injury or illness that are raising four or five children.”

“Our parish has a long history of providing for those in need, and Julie carries on that tradition beautifully,” said Amy Sullivan, business administrator at Our Lady of Sorrows. She has known Slattery for 18 years and said that she works countless hours to provide a critical service to the community. “Julie works hard behind the scenes without anyone knowing the number of hours it takes. She manages her staff of volunteers with grace and humility and welcomes new faces with enthusiasm and gratitude,” said Sullivan. “She works creatively with others to find solutions to any problem or situation that may arise.”

Keri Barrett has been a parishioner at Our Lady of Sorrows for close to 50 years. She is one of the six lead volunteers who work closely with Slattery. “Going above and beyond is what Julie does,” added Barrett. “Recently, there was a group of displaced people living in a motel. Julie went to various stores to get them what they needed — food, toiletry items and other necessities.”

Barrett said it’s Slattery’s leadership skills that keep the pantry running smoothly. “She counts on the staff to take care of the many tasks that need to be completed — everything from picking up donated food, unloading pallets from food deliveries to making home deliveries.”

“We each bring our own skill sets to our tasks. It is a perfect combination for our food pantry to thrive,” explained Slattery. “The 30 friendly, caring men and women who volunteer have found a meaningful ministry that makes a significant difference in our community. “

The pantry now serves families in Tioga County as well as Broome County. Due to the expanded geographic area, the hours of service have increased to include nights and weekends so that those who are working have access to the pantry.

Father Richard Prior, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, said that it is due to Slattery’s outstanding organizational skills that the pantry is able to be open three days a week. “She has put together a great team of volunteers, without whom the pantry would not be able to serve as many as it does,” he said. “Julie has an amazing servant’s heart. She goes to great lengths to serve those in need. She is an inspiration to all of us.”

Slattery said there is always opportunity to get involved. Her husband, Dennis, also has a long history of ministry at the church. He has served as a lector, Eucharistic minister, youth-group leader, and member of the Parish Council. Julie encourages others to volunteer in their community. “There are many opportunities to volunteer your time and talents,” she said. “Finding a meaningful ministry will help fulfill you while making a difference in our community.”

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