Staunton | Shortly after Derrick and Ailee Taylor started NET Community Church last September, Ailee started feeling burdened for the community’s food pantry. Space was tight—the pantry was crammed into three small rooms in another facility, and people were waiting up to four hours to be served.
“Oh, dear heavens, we need to do something about this,” thought the 15-year veteran retail manager. She started volunteering alongside the food pantry’s coordinator, building a relationship so that she might one day earn the right to suggest changes to the pantry’s operation.
But soon, the coordinator came to Ailee with her own idea. “I need you to take this over,” Ailee remembers her saying. She was turning 70 and she told Ailee, “I think God sent you to me to take this.”
Over the next few months, Ailee worked with city officials and the pantry’s board to begin to institute some changes. The biggest was a move to a new facility, a former pharmacy in downtown Staunton. The Taylors’ church, just a few months old, guaranteed that the pantry’s rent and overhead expenses would be provided, and in February, volunteers from the NET and others in Staunton started demolition on the new space.
The relocation and renovation story is one of amazing orchestration, Ailee said. Their landlord, the pharmacist, pays for the pantry’s heat, water, and trash pick-up. A local contractor called to see how he could help just when they needed a wall built. And a church from Paducah, Ky., sent a team in early April to build shelving and help host the community for a block party and open house.
Along with the new building, the coordinators raised money to purchase four freezers and four refrigerators, a move that allowed the food pantry to become part of the Central Illinois Food Bank. The partnership means food now costs the Staunton pantry $0.19 per pound at most, which drastically cut their overall costs, Ailee said.
The brightly lit new space with original, local art on the walls is also more than five times larger than the previous facility, and their volunteer force has grown from 11 to 60. People can be in and out in 20 to 40 minutes, and they can bring their kids. In the new pantry’s first week, traffic more than doubled from the previous location.
The project also has proven to be an effective outreach for the Taylors’ young church. “We have met so many people in the process of the project, so many people that now end up coming to church with us,” Ailee said.
The food pantry is operated as a separate 501(c)(3) organization and staffed by volunteers from NET Community Church and four other local congregations. Ailee currently serves as a co-coordinator with two other women, including Carole Sharp, the long-time food pantry organizer who first recruited her to help run the operation.
The pantry’s new name is the Staunton Helping Hands Center, which points to a vision for a facility that will one day be more than a food pantry. Through their rental agreement, the pantry also has access to an additional 1,200 square feet in a building next door that Ailee hopes they can use to bring government assistance to Staunton residents in need, who are currently traveling to nearby communities to receive those services.
NET Community Church has budgeted a certain amount each month to support the Helping Hands Center, but donations from the community are already helping to cover costs, Ailee said.
The partnership between individuals and organizations in Staunton is illustrated by art on one wall of the new pantry—black and white photos of the hands of actual volunteers as they serve people in their community.
In Staunton, many helping hands make for light work.