No matter the organization, business, individual or job, there is a good chance the COVID-19 pandemic has altered it in some way, shape or form. 

Despite the myriad challenges, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stepped up to continue providing services to those in need, especially as the closings of Faribault’s Salvation Army store and the Faribault Food Shelf last spring increased the need during the pandemic. 

The St. Vincent de Paul Society Food Shelf changed its food distribution to an outside drive-thru model last spring to ensure social distancing for clients and society volunteers. Rather than allowing clients to select their items, volunteers gave them pre-packaged boxes of food to keep volunteers and clients safe. Though that's still the setup, Larry Muehlenbein, director of the society's Food Shelf, hopes to allow patrons to again select their items as soon as everyone is comfortable doing so. The pantry room has been completely revamped to allow for more social distancing and a better flow of traffic. 

Muehlenbein feels allowing clients to select their own foods, similar to that of a grocery store, helps increase their pride and self esteem. Clients receive an assortment of meats, produce, canned/dry goods and dairy products in the food distribution events. 

While each community is unique in its needs/requests for clothing and food, Muehlenbein said the society had a good grasp on the community's needs and adapted accordingly when COVID-19 hit. To accommodate clients, weekly food distributions became twice weekly, while the number of clients have stayed pretty consistent throughout the pandemic. Being able to move to an outdoor/mobile food distribution quickly, Muehlenbein said clientele accepted it and everyone understood the reasoning. Depending on the nee, Muehlenbein said on average the society distributed 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of food a week. About 60,000 to 90,000 pounds of food are received by the society each month and distributed as needed. 

Despite the bumps in the road, Muehlenbein said donations from food suppliers has been fantastic, from both the community, manufacturers and suppliers in stores. 

"Though we thought there would be, there has not been a shortage of food between the food bank, local manufacturers/stores in town and restaurants while temporarily shutdown," said Muehlenbein. "Financial donations have been consistent, clothing donations doubled and so has the number of requested services. Food manufacturers/stores/restaurants have been extremely supportive of our food shelf and the community." 

Along with changes in food distribution, the society also modified its clothes and Christmas box distribution. Racks of clothing are available in the St. Vincent de Paul Society parking lot three days a week for those in need. During the holiday season, there’s even a program to provide new or lightly used toys for children up to 14 years old.

Though set up in a different fashion than previous years due to COVID-19 restrictions, volunteers still put in their time to help sort and organize items, and generous community members and businesses donated items to gift to others. Because clients weren't permitted inside the building, St. Vincent de Paul was unable to have in-person “shopping” for gifts. Since they are dedicated to continuing to provide holiday cheer, organizers developed a process that ensured appropriate safety measures for both clients and volunteers were followed.

Clients were asked to fill out a form to provide more information about the particular child they were shopping for. From there, volunteers used the sheets to fill each Christmas box with age appropriate books, toys and winter apparel, along with some hygiene products, clothing and shoes as they were available. The distribution was open open to current clients, grandparents of client children and anyone who could qualify for food/clothing assistance at St. Vincent de Paul. 

A foundation of volunteers

The society is always looking for food pantry volunteers. With no paid staff, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul relies entirely on the generosity of volunteers to serve those in need. 

While there was increase in clients looking for services when the Faribault Food Shelf closed, Muehlenbein said the number of volunteers able to help also changed. Pre-pandemic, about 50 volunteers donated their time off and on. After the onset of the pandemic in the local area, numbers of volunteers fluctuated from 25 to 50, based on the number of those concerned about social distancing and some who were ill at times.  

"We're always looking for more volunteers," said Muehlenbein. "Anybody can volunteer for one hour, one week of full time. It's completely up to them."

For those unable to volunteer their time, the Society also appreciates receiving monetary donations, as well as donations of personal care items, baby supplies, bedding (sheets, blankets) and kitchenware. Items may be dropped off at the Center between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, excluding Pantry Days. Make checks out to St. Vincent de Paul and drop them off at the Center or mail it to St. Vincent de Paul, 617 Third Ave. NW, Faribault, MN 55021.

As a Christian organization, Muehlenbein feels volunteers stepped up amid the effects of the pandemic through wanting to help the community anyway they could. Although a vast majority of volunteers are retired, Muehlenbein said they felt it was their duty to keep people fed and clothed. 

"Even though we're under a pandemic, the people that were able to work tried their best to keep people as comfortable and healthy as possible," said Muehlenbein. "We felt it was our duty to help the needy and underprivileged. All you can do is feel for people while in need."

Volunteers are needed to help with office work, food distributions, minor maintenance, painting and servicing. Local resident Jose Huertha, who has been volunteering his time for about nine years said he enjoys helping out where needed. 

Though he's been volunteering for six to seven years, Brian Anderson was able to offer up more of his time in the off season of his landscape work. Now that he is partially retired, Anderson says he is there quite frequently. Enjoying the camaraderie of the group, Anderson also likes the family-type atmosphere created with other volunteers.

"It's like coming to work together with your family," added Anderson. "It's nice to help people."

Reach reporter Michelle Vlasak at 507-333-3128 or follow her on Twitter @apgmichelle. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.  All rights reserved.

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