MEND: The Power of Volunteering

Last week, we celebrated the critical donations of time and talent that so many give to WhyHunger and our partner organizations each year as part of National Volunteer Week. This week, we are lifting up the importance of volunteers once again in this Q&A with Kate Cahill, Board of Trustees and Treasurer at MEND, Meeting Emergency Needs with Dignity.

Why is MEND volunteer run?

MEND is a coalition of 16 food pantries across Essex County, NJ, and each of those pantries, which are based in houses of worship, are run almost entirely by volunteers. Historically, much food pantry work has been volunteer-based, especially in churches and temples, as a secular expression of religious faith in their communities. MEND has served those in need, regardless of religious affiliation, for 36 years, and its structure reflects that rich history.

Over time, the increasing need in Essex County, the dedication and appeal of caring for one’s neighbor, and the desire to give back has attracted community members to the effort. Today many of our pantries’ volunteer corps are comprised of a mix of those from the house of worship and the community. That said, MEND does have a part-time Coordinator from Catholic Charities, to whom MEND contributes a portion of her salary. She serves as the central point for the MEND pantries in terms of coordinating activities and communication with pantry managers, as well as the primary intermediary between the pantries and the MEND board of trustees.

How many volunteers are there? Is there a general number of volunteer hours? Are there various tasks they are working on a day to day basis?

Volunteers work at two levels, with the individual pantries and with MEND’s central office. Most volunteers serve at MEND’s 16 pantries in roles that involve transporting, collecting, and distributing food. Each pantry has a pantry manager and a core group of volunteers. Larger pantries have additional tiers or teams of volunteers for specific tasks or days. Each pantry operates on its own schedule (for daily, weekly, or monthly distributions), and recruits its own volunteers. The distribution schedule, number of patrons typically served, and storage and operating space available to each pantry will determine its number of volunteers and how many hours each will contribute. Holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, will require extra volunteers. While MEND does not track each pantry’s specific volunteer hours per week or month, we can comfortably say that approximately 250-300 volunteers support MEND pantries.

Across pantries, whether large or small, the tasks are quite similar. All pantries must resource food (through fundraising, food drives, community food bank purchases, sales at grocery stores, and MEND donations of food and funds), sort it, shelve it, and package it for distribution to their patrons. Some MEND pantries offer soup kitchens or day care with specific groups that run these activities.

One key benefit of being a MEND pantry is the MEND Advisory Board, which is a monthly forum for pantry managers to share best practices as well as frequent challenges. MEND views its pantry managers as critical resources and strives to support them in these especially demanding times. The Advisory Board is led by MEND’s Coordinator, and it is also the primary mechanism for communicating and implementing MEND activities, such as food drives, holiday family support, fundraisers, and advocacy for those in need.

From time to time, volunteers may work at MEND’s central office, usually on a specific project, such as a newsletter or special event. The MEND board of trustees is a working board, and its members fulfill various roles on a volunteer basis, such as running the annual MEND gala, promotion and social media efforts, advocacy, fundraising, grant writing, and cultivation of donors. MEND recently hired a part-time grant writer, who is managed jointly by a board member and the Coordinator.

How do you see the community being impacted/changed by the amazing work MEND is doing?

We are stronger together. In aggregate, MEND pantries serve over 100,000 individuals each year, and throughout its 36-year history, have served 1.8 million. Consequently, MEND’s track record, growing visibility, support, and infrastructure allow its pantries to better do what they do best, serve their clients! While local pantries are a wonderful source of knowledge around what their patrons need most, they often do not have the budget or the resources to always identify those who are in need, fundraise sufficiently, or find the time to advocate on their own. With MEND’s support, pantries can have a greater impact at the local level, and together, at the county and state level.

As MEND pantries become more effective, they attract additional volunteers who are looking for opportunities to become involved with their communities and give back. We hope that as we raise awareness of our pantries, and about hunger and those in need, we inspire more individuals in the community to support our pantries in the campaign for food justice.

Could you speak a little bit about the power of volunteering and how much of a difference volunteers make?

The power of volunteering can be immense as passions are tapped for worthy causes. What is important is to have a practical avenue for those passions so they are leveraged to the fullest. At MEND, we strive to support our pantries and our organization in ways that provide volunteers with meaningful roles. This is an ongoing effort as needs change and new ideas arise. To think a few hundred volunteers each month can serve over 100,000 in need during the course of a year is an amazing testament to the power of volunteering.

Do you have any advice for people who want to start volunteering but maybe don’t know how to go about doing so?

Ask in your community! If you start local, you may be able to tap friends and colleagues for advice. There’s nothing better than serving in the community in which you live. You’ll meet new people with similar interests and may see an entirely different side of life. Educate yourself on the cause, and who knows where it will lead. If there’s an organization or group with a mission that might fit your passion, contact them. Most organizations that could use help are really busy and don’t have resources for public relations or outreach, but they would be very happy to hear from you. As you get further involved in the world of volunteering you’ll learn of more and varied opportunities to give back. Chances are your initial experiences will be a stepping stone to finding the right fit. Then you can become an inspiration and ambassador for volunteering and help others get involved as well.