“The food here is excellent, it’s real good,” said Mark Voyer, a client at My Sister’s Pantry. He was one of the many people lined up on a brisk Saturday morning waiting for the pantry to open. Also waiting was Maria Mondragon, who loves being able to socialize with other people in need. Up and down the line clients shared how nice and caring they are at My Sister’s Pantry. As people begin to gather you can sense the comradery as they greet each other. When handicap visitors arrive everyone gently moves aside so they can sit inside to wait until opening time. The whole group treats each other with respect, and you can tell how much each one looks forward to this period of fellowship and community.
My Sister’s Pantry opened its doors in 1999. It is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and an outreach program of the First United Methodist Church of Tacoma. “The original director named the food bank. She had been homeless at one time and needed the services a food bank provides. She relied on her sister to help her out on occasion and said that she could always find what she needed from her sister’s pantry. Once she had stabilized her life, she wanted to give back. The church had quite a bit of empty space that was perfect for a food bank,” said Martha Curwen, who has served as director since 2002.
One of the busiest food banks in the Tacoma area, My Sister’s Pantry serves an average of 350 families per month and each year distributes more than 125,000 pounds of food. The group opens three days a month and serves a hot meal. Visitors have the opportunity to receive groceries and clothing. The meal is prepared with a lot of love and served on tables covered with fresh tablecloths, metal cutlery and china. The china dates back to the 1920s or ‘30s from an old Tacoma church, and there is enough that every person can eat off a real plate.
“The favorite meal by far is when the cooks from Christ Episcopal Church come and make biscuits and sausage gravy,” Curwen said. The clothing bank is set up like a store with separate sections for men, women and children. The Pantry is open two evenings and one Saturday a month allowing minimum-wage earners to visit without disrupting their work schedules.
Curwen has a wealth of experience that makes her perfect to head My Sister’s Pantry. “I’ve had several jobs over my career that prepared me for being the director. Right after college I worked in banking here in Tacoma and in Georgia. I took a break to raise my children and returned to the business world as a clerk and then manager of the Tacoma Art Museum Gift Store. I’m a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. That organization gave me organizational, public speaking and nonprofit training.”
Curwen finds the work she does very rewarding. “One in six Washingtonians relies on a food bank; the people we serve are food insecure,” she said. “While I’m a paid part-time employee of the Pantry, I’ve volunteered with other organizations most of my life. Doing good in the world makes me feel content. I strive to treat everyone with respect because I could be in their shoes, too.”
My Sister’s Pantry fills a need within the community. The typical client served is anyone who has a need for food and clothing. “Proof of need is not required at our food bank. Clients include low-income families and the homeless. Our clientele are veterans, street folk and immigrants just new to the United States, those that are leaving the detention center and those who may have suffered a catastrophe in their lives such as a fire,” said Curwen.
While some organizations may struggle to find volunteers, the Pantry is fortunate to have an ongoing partnership with local utility companies. On the first Monday of the month, employees from Tacoma Public Utilities volunteer, and on the third Monday of the month, Tacoma Power employees work the shift. On the Saturday opening, various women’s groups and church members volunteer. Throughout the year military from Joint Base Lewis-McChord and local schools also contribute their time. “During the summer months we can use volunteers, as many of our regulars take vacations,” Curwen said.
The Pantry has had a huge impact in Tacoma for the food insecure and the homeless population. “We hear from our clients that they like our food bank because we distribute groceries, serve a hot meal and have a clothing bank each time we are open. We also do not restrict the number of times a client can visit,” she said. “Since our three open times are spread throughout the month, we know that clients must seek other resources. Further, clients tell us that we treat everyone with dignity and respect.”
Over the years, My Sister’s Pantry has received many awards including the Ecumenical Service Award from Associated Ministries, the Silver Spoon Award from the Emergency Food Network and the Compassionate Hospitality Award from First Center Tacoma. Curwen encourages people “to recognize something that is important to them and then seek a place to put into action their passions, donating time, talent and resources.”
How to Help
• The greatest need is monetary donations which help with operating costs and bulk buying.
• Have a food drive or drop off individual donations, hygiene items for women are always needed
• Summer clothing, new socks and undergarments, especially needed are men’s and children’s clothing.
• If you have a summer garden consider planting a row for the Pantry and donating fresh produce. Donors of fresh items need to remember that the Pantry is only open three times per month. Plan perishable food drop-offs based on when they are open.
• Volunteers during the summer months as the regular team of workers take vacations.
• Watch the website for a restaurant take-over which raises money for the Pantry.
• Contribute to or attend the Pantry’s major fundraiser in the fall.
Before dropping off items, be sure to call 253.627.1186 to verify someone is there to receive them. Curwen is generally in the office daily from 10am to 3pm. Also be sure to check their website regularly for needs at MySistersPantry.org. My Sister’s Pantry is located at 621 Tacoma Avenue South in Tacoma.