HILLSBORO — Like kindly clockwork, volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul food bank here serve as many as 3,000 needy people per month. That makes it one of the busiest emergency food sites in the area.
"They treat us very well and seem to meet all of our needs," says Mikki Hudson of Hillsboro, about to go through the pantry with husband Howard. His unemployment payments have stopped, her medical bills have mounted and both now have a virus. "They are good people," Howard says. "We need them because all our money goes to rent and bills."
Juanita Berry of Hillsboro has come to collect food for her household of nine. "Without this, it would be hard," she says.
The overall numbers have remained steady since the recession of 2008, but as some families find jobs and recover, others hit trouble. Each month, 60 to 70 households come to the pantry, just across from St. Matthew Church, for the first time.
St. Vincent de Paul serves anyone of any faith and people with no faith. The pantry offers companionship as well as food. Volunteers are paired with those in need and help them wind through the aisles and pick up supplies, grocery store style. In addition to interaction, the method reduces waste, since guests take only what they want. No computerized system here. Guest records are kept in a card catalogue.
About 50 unpaid workers keep the ministry clipping along, with some coming five days a week. Those in need also get help with furniture, rent and utilities.
Marie Casserly volunteers at the pantry because it once saw her through hard times.
"It feels so good to help these people out, even if it's just a little," says Casserly, also a eucharistic minister at St. Matthew and member of the team that adores the Eucharist.
"They said there was a need here," says Bonnie Tofflemire, a "semi-retired" nurse who has been a member of St. Matthew for 30 years. "At the end of the day, it makes me feel good."
"They needed the help and they needed my pickup," says 85-year-old Jerry Rhein, a parishioner who has volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul for 20 years.
Volunteering is not just for Catholics. Jerry and Bobbie Carr, Baptists, come weekly. No one gets paid. That includes Ron McDonald, president of the parish's St. Vincent de Paul.
McDonald, 73, has volunteered for the society for a decade. When he retired, wife Rochelle asked him what he planned to do. She suggested St. Vincent de Paul, where she had been volunteering. He liked the smooth operation and before long was asked to enter leadership. McDonald is at the pantry every morning from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
"It has been an unbelievable experience and journey for me," he says. "It has been an addiction with no cure."
When he became president, McDonald did not need to change much. He added a little more spirituality, including a prayer to start each morning. "It reminds everyone we have a special day ahead of us to reach the poor and feed the hungry," he says.
"It's a spiritual adventure," adds McDonald, a retired sales and marketing chief for automotive products. "We try to see Jesus in everybody we serve."
McDonald is interested in both charity and justice. In addition to providing food, he is wants to advocate for systemic change that severs the roots of poverty and creates jobs in the area. He has taught young people at St. Matthew what St. Vincent de Paul does, addresses those becoming Catholic each year and meets with Protestant churches.
McDonald has been intent on fusing the Anglo and Hispanic communities via St. Vincent de Paul. And sure enough, people from both groups come for help and people from both groups give it.
Local Hispanic-owned businesses are avid supporters. José Graciano owns a Portland food cart and volunteers with the food pantry because he finds it beautiful that someone will do a kindness without expecting anything in return. Lupe Esquivez owns a tortilla factory and sends boxes of food to St. Vincent de Paul to distribute. When asked why she helps, she looks puzzled, as if the answer is obvious: "We are part of the community."
A handful of are grocers donate food: New Seasons, Hanks, Safeway, Winco and Costco. Donations from individuals are welcome. Some high-protein items are always hard to come by: tuna and peanut butter. Diapers are also in short supply.
McDonald realizes a person here and there may try to game the system. The society has processes in place to prevent most of that. But in the end, McDonald does not get carried away with fretting. He asks himself what Jesus might do in this situation and remembers, "It's all about God, anyway."
Founder of the conference was Ray Hertel, known by some as "St. Raymond." A retired farmer and father of 12, he founded the charity in 1969 and died in 1996. The building, in fact, is called "The Hertel Center."