They serve residents in need, working to make sure no family goes hungry. But after a near-catastrophic oil spill, it was the DuPage Township Food Pantry that needed help.
Last fall’s Enbridge oil spill dumped more than 450,000 gallons of oil near Route 53 and Parkwood Avenue, displacing local businesses, as well as the pantry, located at 719 Parkwood.
Staffer Sherri Penrod was the first person to realize something was amiss the morning of Sept. 9, 2010.
“It was a Thursday morning,” Penrod remembered. Looking out onto Parkwood Avenue, Penrod noticed what looked like water in the roadway, just beginning to creep up the pantry’s driveway.
“We figured, ‘OK, we have a water main break,’” she said.
But a second trip outside revealed to Penrod that there was a much bigger problem.
“I came back out again and I saw that the water looked black,” she said. “I got closer and you could smell it. I went back inside and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ … Within minutes, every agency you could think of was there.”
Pantry staff were ordered to evacuate and given 15 minutes to gather up things like computers, according to pantry staff member Tracey Mayfield.
In their haste, pantry staff even had to leave behind the food they were prepping from that morning’s distribution.
“We had bread and things that were left out for weeks,” Penrod said.
“We weren’t able to save anything in the building,” Mayfield added. “It all had to go.”
The spill displaced the pantry for eight months, forcing them to find a temporarily facility, first in the Spartan’s Square shopping center on Route 53 and then on Naperville Drive.
But even in an emergency, the pantry’s services were needed — there were still hungry families to feed. Thanks to donations from the community and the support of DuPage Township and villages of Romeoville and Bolingbrook, pantry staff and volunteers were able to continue serving customers with little disruption.
“We were only closed that Thursday,” Penroad said. “We moved to Spartans Square the next week.”
Moving between their two temporary homes plus frequent trips back to the Parkwood Drive for essentials created a challenge for staff.
“It was a lot of running,” Mayfield said.
It was also a challenge to get the word out to the 100 to 150 customers who show up for each distribution.
“If they didn’t have the Internet or read the newspaper, they didn’t know,” Mayfield said. The township and the local media worked to spread the word, and signs were posted near the pantry informing customers of the temporary location.
Eight months later, the pantry is back home. With cleanup efforts finished, the facility had been repainted and is ready to serve residents once again. Staff members moved back in on April 1.
Mayfield said they are once again working to spread the word, this time making it known that the pantry is back on Parkwood Drive.
Distribution is held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, and clients can come up to two times per month to pick up everything from food to cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items.
“We try not to turn anyone away, even if they’re not from the township,” Mayfield said. Non-residents are given a small amount of food and a referral to a pantry in their area, she added.
To make the experience more like grocery shopping, customers are given a shopping cart and their choice of different types of bread, milk and toiletries.
Even more importantly, the largely volunteer-run organization works to make the experience less painful for residents in need.
“When they come in, you can see the hurt on their faces,” Mayfield said, adding she believes there are even more families out there in need of help but unwilling to accept it. The still-struggling economy means an even greater need for the pantry’s services, she explained.
“It’s a whole new experience for a lot of people,” she said. Formerly two-income families are struggling after the loss of one or both jobs.
“We hear time and time again, if they did have any savings, it’s wiped out,” Penrod said.
“You see all walks of people,” Mayfield said. “We serve everyone.”
And sometimes, it’s the little things that matter even more than a basket of food.
“A hug alone sometimes makes a huge, huge difference,” Mayfield said.