TINICUM TOWNSHIP — Maryann Waters of Ridley Park winces uncomfortably at the term “working poor,” the phrase sometimes used for those who work full or part-time, but still struggle to make ends meet and live under, or only slightly above, the poverty line.
She says that her team of volunteers dislikes categorizing people, and instead prefers to just give individuals a hand up if they need it, with no labels, no judgement and no questions asked.
As the current senior warden and director of the Church of St. John The Evangelist in Essington, Waters sees about 20 to 25 struggling families and individuals each week, coming through the big red doors on Wanamaker Avenue to seek help.
Every Tuesday evening, people of all ages arrive at the church’s food pantry that she runs with her mother Cynthia Houpt of Holmes, the church’s accountant warden Michele Crawford of Crum Lynne, and several other volunteers and members of St. John’s congregation.
The volunteers never turn away anyone who is in need of food.
Many of the individuals that they serve are employed, but they don’t make enough money to feed themselves or their families, once they pay the rent or mortgage, the electric, gas and water bills, and a few other basic necessities.
The ladies, all members of St. John the Evangelist, noticed this growing need in 2019 and started the food pantry for those who “fell through the cracks” of the system. Since SNAP benefits have been stopped or greatly reduced for many families this year, and food prices continue to skyrocket, the need has grown substantially, they said.
“Some people, because they do work, don’t fall into the income guidelines for assistance, and yet they do not make enough money to put food on the table.” Waters explained. “They are the individuals whom we try to help. But, we also help anyone who is in genuine need of food because of their current circumstances.”
Clients usually arrive at the church toting duffel bags or handcarts with rollers if they are on foot, or backpacks or boxes if they come on their bikes.
Waters said that because the location of the Church at Third and Wanamaker Avenues is within walking distance of the motels on Route 291, the outreach ministry sees many individuals who are living there temporarily for a variety of reasons.
“Community Action Agency will often put individuals and families who are homeless up in the motels and gives them a stipend for food,” Waters explains. “However, it doesn’t always cut it. One family has 10 children and they need extra food. We all know how much food growing kids can eat. Another family needed a car for the adults to get back and forth to work so they had to choose between a second-hand car and gas to keep a job or buying food. It’s situations like these where we can be a lifesaver to families.”
Waters told about a woman who was homeless, and living in the weeds behind the motels because “she was scared to stay in shelters.”
“It’s because of her that I go periodically to the dollar store to purchase can openers and keep them in stock,” Waters said. “It never occurred to me that we were giving out canned goods, and this woman still couldn’t eat because she had no way to open the can. So now, our clients can take a can opener if they need it.”
The St. John the Evangelist Community Food Pantry is barely five years old.
It has evolved and changed to meet the needs of those it serves.
During the pandemic, the pantry took orders and dropped food off to families in need. Originally opened during the daytime, the pantry changed its operating hours to 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesday evenings to accommodate those who work during the day.
The ladies also made a “blessing box” out on the lawn of the church, where people can anonymously drop off books to read and nonperishable food items and people can stop by and take them for free 24/7.
“This helps people in need on the days that we are closed,” Crawford explained.
The volunteers said the pantry’s mission is to provide help, while treating anyone who needs help with respect and dignity.
“We talk to people and try to treat each client with the utmost respect,” Waters said. “Asking for help is really hard on a person’s ego. No one wants to be in that position. We create a warm atmosphere here so it’s more like a community here, because we genuinely care about everyone who comes in our door. We try to help them in any way that we can, including telling them about available community resources.”
Since the pantry is not government-funded and operates solely on private donations, people who shop at the pantry do not need to fill out lengthy government forms when they come in order to qualify. Instead, they can just show up and, after answering a few basic questions, clients can begin shopping.
“We just ask shoppers to be honest and only take the items if they truly need them,” Waters explained. “Let’s face it, we are not giving out steak and lobster. If people are waiting in a line and swallowing their pride to get macaroni and cheese or a box of cereal, I think, chances are, they are truly in need.”
Shoppers are provided a check-off list of available nonperishable grocery items in stock. After checking off what they need, volunteers go and fill the order. If the pantry was blessed with fresh breads or produce, or frozen and refrigerated foods, the selections are posted on a white board in the lobby and shoppers can request those as well.
Tinicum food desert
In addition to the weekly food allotments, toiletries, paper products and nonfood items are distributed about once a month, and diapers and baby food are given out when they are in stock.
St. John’s also provides holiday meals to families, who frequent the pantry, on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Quarterly, they also hold a free market during the pantry’s operating hours, sharing clothes, children’s items, household items and other things with the public.
Seeing about sixty different faces each month, the pantry’s volunteers say that they have witnessed a surge in need because Tinicum Township is a food desert, without any local supermarket.
“We used to have Ziggy’s, a small corner food store, but that closed during the pandemic,” Crawford explained. “Now there’s only Wawa. If you don’t have a car and have to travel by foot, the closest supermarkets are ShopRite and Acme in Ridley, so neither are close by.
Donations, volunteers sought
The St. John Food Pantry relies solely on private monetary and food donations to supply the inventory.
“We’ve applied to Philabundance and SHARE, but were told that we don’t meet their demographics,” Waters said, adding that they are still baffled by this. “However, we do get some supplemental help from Caring for Friends, located on Seminole Avenue in Tinicum Township. They recently gave us three cases of green beans, some chopped ham, cucumbers and corn on the cob.”
The pantry is operated by about 10 volunteers who rotate in groups of three or four so they don’t have to be there every Tuesday.
The pantry urgently needs more volunteers. The ladies said it is a perfect opportunity for local Scout groups and community organizations to get involved, or older children to accomplish community service hours.
“We really would like to have some community partners,” Waters said. “Maybe some local businesses could get involved and put bins in their lobbies or stores to collect food for our pantry. Or, community groups and organizations, schools, or other churches could spearhead a food drive for our pantry.”
The volunteers said that they really appreciate when the Boy Scouts have a food drive in November, and the Postal Service has its food collection in June, and stock their pantry. Christ Church in Ridley Park and Christ Church in Media have also helped with food donations in the past.
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, which has a congregation of only about 25, is currently without a priest. The church, founded in 1902, formerly shared a priest with St. James Episcopal Church in Prospect Park, but now St. James has a priest.
“There are four or five Episcopal churches in Delaware County right now that do not have priests because there is a shortage,” Waters shared. “We are currently in talks with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chester about sharing a priest. Sometimes, we have to run our 11 a.m. Sunday prayer service by ourselves.”
Even without an Episcopal priest at the helm, the Church of St. John the Evangelist continues to practice their Christian faith and principles by feeding the hungry and caring for the least of their brothers and sisters.
“Anyone who finds himself without enough food to eat is welcome to come through the red doors any Tuesday night of the month,” Houpt said. “We are open 5 to 6 p.m. and, if we have it in stock, we will gladly provide.”
“Right now, we are extremely low on food donations, and we are concerned that we may not be able to fulfill the shopping lists in the coming weeks,” Waters added. “We are pleading with the community to help us with this outreach. Donations can be brought to the church Tuesday evenings when we are here or Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. If those times don’t work, they can call us and we will figure out a way to get the donations onto the shelves of the pantry and into the hands of those in need.”
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church is at 16 W. Third St., Tinicum Township.
For questions, contact the church at 610-521-3612 or StJohnsEssington@gmail.com or Senior Warden Mary Ann Waters at 610-405-9043 or email@example.com.