Culver pantry has banner season -- thanks to local kids, volunteers

If Culver area youth were to hold drives for the Culver Council of Churches food pantry year-round, says pantry Director Leroy Bean, the shelves would likely always be stocked and the coffers full of funds. Bean knows whereof he speaks: between November 15 and December 20, the pantry took in 4,258 pounds of donated items, and a good share of it came through the efforts of local young folks.
It would be a challenge to list every donor to the pantry this holiday season, but Bean describes some of the significant contributions, many of which involve youth. Over the November 19 weekend, for example, local 4H and Gleaners brought in 698 pounds of food plus cash donations, much of it thanks to an event at the Uptown Cinema, which showed the movie, "Secretariat," over the weekend with a donated item for the pantry as admission.
Culver Community Middle Schoolers' food drive yielded a December 10 donation of 898 pounds of food and toiletry items; Wesley Preschool -- operating out of Culver's Wesley United Methodist Church -- donated 201 pounds of food and 85 pounds of paper products, besides cash donations, on December 16 following a special Christmas party for which students were encouraged to bring items.
Bean and Pantry assistant Dennis Lewandowski (who earlier replaced Joyce Wynn, and whom Bean calls "my right hand and my left hand" at the pantry) were most moved at the sight of two Culver Community Schools buses pulling in December 16, following Culver Elementary School fourth graders' shopping trip to Plymouth. In what has become an annual tradition, the students are expected to earn money, on their own time doing chores and the like, towards the project. Math and shopping skills are employed as teachers and adult helpers walk the aisles with students, choosing the best deals for their money, and all of it aimed at helping stock the pantry shelves.
Though pantry volunteers knew the students were coming, watching youngsters pour from the buses laden with food-filled bags -- which the students insisted on carrying downstairs to the pantry, located in the basement of Grace United Church of Christ, by themselves -- clearly warmed the hearts of those helping out that day. The fourth graders brought in 624 pounds worth of items.
Other large donations included 235 pounds collected from St. Mary of the Lake Catholic Church in Culver, 160 pounds brought in from Miller's Merry Manor, and 130 pounds collected from a box the pantry leaves at Park N Shop in Culver. One family, adds Bean, donated 24 Christmas stockings "jammed full of personal items."
Leroy Bean has been volunteering at the food pantry for eight years now, though he became Director September 1, taking over the job from an ailing Amy Hutchens, whose leadership there for several years was also remarkable.
He jokes that he can't seem to stop volunteering, and that's not just at the pantry. In recent years, he's become very visible in Lions on a number of levels, including leading the charge in picking up and hauling items for the club's popular spring and fall flea markets. He's been on Culver's Parks and Recreation board, including most recently as President, and also sits on the board of directors at Grace United Church of Christ (he's been Vice President and Co-Chair on that board), at which he's also a deacon.
All this volunteering earned Bean the Culver Chamber of Commerce's Volunteer of the Year award in 2008 -- "So I've got to keep doing it!" he jokes.
The pantry is open each Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon (except days when the weather is severe enough for local schools to close, in which case the pantry is always closed as well).
Last Tuesday, 26 families visited the pantry. Bean points out that the number of families has increased noticeably over the past year or two. During November, 117 families visited, with 100 in October, he says.
Meantime, Bean and other pantry volunteers can be -- and clearly are -- proud of Culver's young people.
"Last year, when I picked up the food from the middle school," recalls Bean, "I went in and...they grabbed a bunch of kids. The kids wheeled (the food) all out to my van.
"They're fantastic. They do a good job...if they keep doing the same things through their entire life, we've got a great bunch of people to look forward to!"