MENTONE — A community fixture of 33 years continues to support those in need of food assistance.
“Mary and Jerry’s Helping Hands Food Bank” is tucked away south of Mentone on a county road east of SR 19. The food bank was started in the late 1980s by longtime Mentone residents Mary and Jerry Secrist. The couple lives next door and still oversees operations at the pantry.
Amidst the uncertain times due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple seeks to provide food assistance for those in need. The food panty is normally open on Thursday afternoons.
Helping Hands serves guests mostly in the Tippecanoe Valley school district and the immediate surrounding area.
Neither Secrist expected to see a pandemic in their lifetime. Let alone run a food pantry amid sudden job losses and economic uncertainty.
Mary Secrist said they served 8 guests last week.
The couple didn’t have plans to open the pantry. They did so after looking out their window at home and saw vehicles in the pantry’s parking lot.
She expected that number to increase as the food pantry prepared to open on Thursday, March 26.
“We’re expecting a lot,” said Mary Secrist before the pantry opened.
More than 10 guests were served within the first half-hour after opening.
The Secrist’s, along with several volunteers, braved the rain to hand out food at the pantry on West CR 600S. However, some things have changed in light of the health crisis. The Secrists and most of the volunteers inside the pantry wore masks and gloves while handling the food items.
Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Office and Tippecanoe Valley School Corporation Resource Officer Rick Shepherd was present to ensure consistency of safety.
Usually, those using the pantry could walk into the building and pick up their items. For the health of the guests and volunteers, each guest picked a card with a number and waited in their vehicle until a volunteer called out the number.
When a guest’s number was called, their collection of food items would be available for pick up on a folding table located 10 feet from the pantry’s entrance. Each food package included fruits, vegetables, meat, non-perishables, bread and pastries.
Visitors at the pantry Thursday were both affected and unaffected by the pandemic. Ida Goble said she has not been impacted by the pandemic. Like many who come to the pantry, she use the pantry because she was “low on some things.”
Another guest, Mentone resident Samantha Guess, found herself at the pantry after her hours were cut last week at the Pizza King in Silver Lake where she worked as a server.
Both understood the precautions taken by Helping Hands. “I don’t blame them,” said Gobel. Guess applauded the efforts to keep both guests and volunteers safe.
As far as the food supply, the Secrists aren’t worried about running out. On a weekly basis, Jerry Secrist and a volunteer, Eldin Martin, pick up items at the Food Bank of Northern Indiana in South Bend.
“We have a full house,” said Jerry Secrist.
“We won’t run out for a while,” Mary Secrist said. Despite concerns in the 33 years of the pantry’s existence, “We’ve never run out of food,” she said.