GREENVILLE — When the Hands of Jesus food pantry first opened its doors just over 13 years ago, Karen Morales’ charitable effort was no more than a small, spare room serving the needs of three area families. Like a mustard seed in fertile soil, however, that modest undertaking quickly grew, filling a need many weren’t even aware existed.
Now, Morales’ all-volunteer pantry, which she manages with her sister, Darlene Harkrader, helps feed hundreds of needy families each week. That number is only growing larger, Morales said.
“It all started with those first three families that needed some help,” Morales said. “(The pantry) was just a little room in the back of our church at first. But it just kept expanding; before we knew it, we had 50 families and it just kept growing.”
Eventually, Morales acquired the old Meijer building on M-91, allowing expansion not only of the pantry, but also the installation of a used merchandise repository, the Arms of Love Second-hand Store. That store, in which all items for sale have been reclaimed or donated, helps fund the pantry.
“We set up a little store in back,” Morales said. “And it also just kept growing and taking over more room. Eventually we moved the store out into the front room; that was about three years ago.”
Though prices at the store are already very low — the point, after all, is not to turn a profit, but to provide clothing, furniture and other items to needy families — most prices are negotiable, particularly for those most in need.
“We have families come here who have had a fire, been burned out, and lost everything,” Morales said. “We help them. This stuff happens not just once in a while, but all the time.”
With over 4,000 individuals turning to the pantry each month for food, the funding that comes from the second-hand store is critical, Morales stressed.
“There are just so many people in need right now,” she said.
Julie Kepler, one of the many area residents who volunteer their time at both the pantry and the store, can rattle off case after case in which the organization has stepped up to provide critical goods and services to the area’s economically disadvantaged.
“I’ve been volunteering there for a couple years,” Kepler said. “There’s not one paid person down there. They’ve got a dozen regular volunteers committed to their cause. They all have stories to tell.”
Kepler’s story involves a young man — probably a drug addict, she says — who came in looking for clothes to wear to his mother’s funeral.
“It was so sad,” she said. “He was dirty, he smelled, he was dealing with the grief of losing his mother and just wanted to look decent for her funeral. I helped him pick out some clothes, even underwear and socks, shoes, a tie. It was one of those moments when I said, ‘My God, I’m grateful for the paths I’ve chosen; this could have been me.’”
Pantry recipients are generally referred to the organization through area churches or social services organizations.
“We do ask that people go through the 211,” Kepler said. “It’s a new emergency hotline for anyone in need of domestic or social needs. We try to help them with anything they need. I’ve seen people in here with their last dollar trying to buy diapers. I’ve also seen wonderful things happen.”
This week from Wednesday through Saturday, the Arms of Love store will be selling all clothing for only $1 per item. Morales hopes the sale will not only generate more awareness of the organization, but also will raise more funds she says are desperately needed to help keep hunger at bay for hundreds of area families.
The store is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
For more information, call (616) 799-0690.