Social services ministry feeds hundreds daily

BELLEVIEW | Thirty-six out of 45 food pantries in Marion County closed this past month due to food shortages and inability to accommodate new CDC guidelines. Despite the reduction, St. Theresa Parish Social Services Ministry is bursting at the seams, serving approximately 150 people per day in the soup kitchen and another 50, mostly homeless individuals, with breakfast through their pantry. All food is take-out only, of course.

The operation runs seven days per week with the help of more than 50 volunteers. Jack Nettis is the program’s director and says the church was feeding 80-100 families per day before the COVID-19 outbreak. Of the nine remaining open pantries, St. Theresa’s is the only one open consistently in the southern portion of Marion County. Nettis said, “Because of that, people are coming to us from all over the county to get food. We simply provide it.”

He is quick to acknowledge it possible only through a unified effort. He feels blessed at the amount of food they are receiving, from grocery stores who provide daily to a bakery distribution center, and a local farm, which donates fresh produce weekly. He noted the generosity has enabled the pantry, “to give out some of the best packages of food we’ve been able to give out, probably ever.” When they have an abundance, they share it with their partners – Belleview Area Social Services Network (BASS), which is made up of about 10 churches and other agencies that work together to share distribution and maximize service. Additionally, parishioners and nearby restaurants have also been giving “an amazing amount of prepared food.” Nettis added, “Talk about fishes and loaves. It’s just amazing to see how much is coming in. Where some of our normal channels of food aren’t as abundant as they once were because people aren’t going to church, people are driving here to drop it off. It’s just beautiful,” he said.

Nettis credits the 50 or so weekly volunteers for making it all happen. “All of us here are in that vulnerable age group (for COVID-19),” he explained. “Yet all still want to volunteer because this is a passion for them. They want to give back.” That said, he assures, “We’re taking all the necessary precautions for their safety, for the public’s safety. We are following all of the CDC guidelines and have stepped it up, even beyond that to provide a safe environment. People still want to come here and give to others. It’s wonderful to see.”

Added safety measures include the soup kitchen’s covered patio and seating closure. Normally a “push” pantry system, where food is bagged for those needed, placed in a cart and pushed out to the clients, the pantry transition simply needed the addition of a cleaning system between deliveries. Volunteers are now spraying and wiping down carts for the next delivery and using gloves and masks to keep the food from possible contamination. There is no physical contact with clients and volunteers work hard to honor social distancing while preparing bags and to-go meal boxes. Frequent hand washing and sterilization of surfaces and products is in practice as well. At the soup kitchen, to-go food is set on a table for the public to pick it up. Previously, each family member had to be present to get food. To serve as many as possible without forcing people out of doors, those rules have loosened.

Operations Manager Marcia Wheatley is applying her experience of serving veterans for almost 30 years to serve the Social Services Ministry. “Prior to coming to work at St. Theresa two years ago, I wasn’t really a practicing Catholic,” said Wheatley. “This church and community has made me realize what I’ve been missing all those years. I love giving back … Not only in terms of office necessities, but in terms of an ear that will listen and some sage advice once in a while. Being here has awakened my Catholic faith in more ways than I can’t list,” she said.

The community of St. Theresa continually astounds Nettis. When the recommendation that everyone wear facemasks came a few weeks prior, stores were out of them. Nettis posted a request for masks on Facebook that Sunday afternoon. “By Monday morning, people were flooding us with facemasks. He had to send a note on Facebook again letting donors know they had enough and “did not want to be gluttons”. He encouraged they share extras with family and friends. “Everyone is doing whatever it takes to serve the people,” he noted.

Parish Pastor, Father Tom Connery helped pack more than 200 Easter meals of ham, salad, rolls and cake. “I am so proud of what Jack and his staff and host of volunteers are doing,” he said. “We have a beautiful statue of Saint Mother Teresa (of Kolkata) in front of the soup kitchen. She is our inspiration. I know if she were here, she would be doing the same. As Mother Teresa was fond of saying, ‘When you serve the poor, you are serving God.’ I pray every morning before it opens for the Lord’s protection over our guests and those who give of themselves in service. So far so good.” He added, “We have to stay open. People need to eat. We want to be the place where people know they can go. It is our honor and privilege.”

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic April 20, 2020