Happy Helpers Pantry volunteers keep people fed in Alexander County

Sunday, January 1, 2012
Vera Bridges prepares a bag of refrigerated items Friday morning, Dec. 30, 2011 at Happy Helpers Pantry in Tamms, Ill. Volunteers prepare bags of fresh, frozen and non-perishable items to be ready for pick-up. (Laura Simon)

TAMMS, Ill. -- The volunteer operators of Happy Helpers Pantry plan to use donations raised for last spring's flood victims to keep working toward a goal established nearly 30 years ago -- to provide as much free food as possible to local people in need.

In December, four Alexander County organizations received $20,000 raised by the Southern Illinois Together Flood Benefit Committee and the Poshard Foundation for Abused Children to benefit people affected by the floods in April and May. In addition to Happy Helpers, Daystar Community Program, Delta Centers Inc. and The Kitchen Table, all in Cairo, Ill., received funds.

Lacie Betts, president of the board of Happy Helpers, a not-for-profit organization, said he has seen about a 25 percent increase in people visiting the pantry compared to before the flooding. Sacks containing $60 to $70 of groceries are given away Thursdays and Fridays to more than 500 people every month.

During the flood, Betts said, many people forced to leave their homes couldn't take supplies with them and came to the pantry for help.

"We didn't ask questions," Betts said. "We just give 'em food."

Betts made two trips to St. Louis and two to the Tri-State Food Bank in Evansville, Ind., to replenish their supplies, in addition to collecting local contributions. Happy Helpers staff distributed food throughout Alexander, Pulaski and Union counties in Illinois, including emergency feeding stations at First Baptist Church in Anna, Olive Branch, Egyptian School in Tamms and Shawnee College in Ullin.

Lester "Frenchie" and Dorothy "Dot" LaForest started Happy Helpers in their home in 1982, and Dorothy LaForest kept it going after her husband's death in 1998. When she died three years ago, Betts said, he and his wife, Marian, heard that the property might be turned over to the state. Afraid the place would just "rot down," they approached the LaForest family, who agreed to sign it over to them.

Betts, retired after more than 35 years as a pastor, said running the pantry keeps him as busy as a full-time job. Twelve regular volunteers also contribute their time, along with several children such as 11 year-olds Grace Reynolds and Chloe Dowdy, who sometimes fill sacks and do small tasks to help.

"We operate on donations and contributions," Betts said. "There are no paid staff at all, not even me."

The $2,000 donation they received will go right back into operations, he said.

"We will purchase food with it and continue to service people in need," Betts said.

Each person who visited the pantry Friday could go home with two bags of nonperishables, a bag of frozen meats and two half-gallons of milk, weighing more than 46 pounds total. Families are eligible for more, based on the number of members. People can also choose fresh bread, baked goods, fruit and vegetables in whatever amount they feel they need, based on availability.

Besides food purchases made at a discount from large suppliers such as the Tri-State Food Bank, Happy Helpers relies on donations from local vendors, such as Walmart and Kroger in Anna and Save-A-Lot in Jonesboro to keep the pantry stocked. Many items available to them are discounted or free "salvage foods" such as dented cans or boxes that have been damaged without affecting the contents. Betts said salvage foods are often wastefully thrown away and he would like to increase opportunities to pick them up directly from local businesses.

The pantry suggests that people visit them for groceries once a month, but no one is turned away.

"If somebody walks through that door and says that they need food, they are going to leave with some food," Betts said.

As they enter Tamms, a sign welcomes drivers with the slogan "A good place to live." Betts agrees.

"I have found in this community that people want to help," he said. "I'm proud of our little place."

Happy Helpers Pantry is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and can be contacted at 618-747-2123.

salderman@semissourian.com

388-3648

Pertinent address:

430 3rd St., Tamms, IL

Map of pertinent addresses

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