Martha’s Pantry volunteers pitch in like their lives depend on it

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

MARTHA’s PANTRY

• What: A food pantry and drop-in center for people with HIV/AIDS.

• Where: Moved in the summer to the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1220 N.E. 68th St.

• Open: Tuesdays 11 a.m.-1 p.m.; Thursdays 4-7 p.m.

• Web: marthaspantry.com

• Call: 360-695-1480.

• Church: Martha’s Pantry is a ministry of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd, which holds services at the same site at 11 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. Sundays. Visit mccofthegentleshepherd.org

WARM COAT DRIVE

• What: Martha’s Pantry will collect new and gently used coats for local homeless shelters.

• Where: Drop off at the church, 1220 N.E. 68th St., or call 360-699-7376 to arrange pickup.

• When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9.

Michele Kruchoski figured she was a goner.

She’s been living with full-blown AIDS for more than a decade, and her compromised immune system waved the white flag years ago as a rare and usually fatal brain ailment, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, stepped in and took over.

She suffered two strokes and became severely disabled. Unable to walk or talk, she assumed she had no future. She accepted hospice care.

Now watch Kruchoski go, playing hostess at Clark County’s only food pantry and drop-in center dedicated to people like her: people living with HIV/AIDS. People who used to have no hope, and precious little community.

“Martha’s Pantry has been my second home,” Kruchoski, 50, said. “They opened up to me when I really had nothing. Now, look at me: I am standing on my own two feet.”

Not just standing, she’s hustling. Thanks to advances in treatment, decent medical insurance and the support of a loving family, Kruchoski’s prognosis is promising; despite remaining partially paralyzed, she spends hours each week greeting newcomers and filling boxes in a small suite of basement rooms at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell.

“We have grown into such a close-knit group,” she said. “So many of us have disabilities. There is no judgment. There’s great camaraderie.”

Kruchoski is also the driving force behind a Martha’s Pantry coat drive for the homeless, set for Nov. 9. “We’ve never done this before,” she said. “I just thought we could help some other people out, too.”

That spirit is typical of Martha’s Pantry people, Executive Director Vicki Smith said. “A lot of the people who volunteer here are very limited in their means,” Smith said. “Giving back like this brings real value to their lives.”

Trunk with wings

It all started in the trunk of Jerry West’s car. That was in the early 1980s, when AIDS was new and terrifying — and sometimes called “GRID,” for gay-related immune disease. But mostly it wasn’t called anything at all, remembered West, now 76, who was a La Center schoolteacher at the time.

“This was when the president was afraid to say the word ‘AIDS,’ ” he said. But West and one La Center colleague weren’t afraid to start SWAP, or Southwest Washington AIDS Project, a grass-roots effort to reach out to people who were increasingly isolated from the outside world, West said. “Some people would start going hungry,” West said. “We saw to it that people had food.”

“Jerry was the life force,” said Smith. “When people were dying or scared to death of dying, he’d fill up his trunk and go deliver.”

West’s trunk sprouted wings. SWAP joined forces with Metropolitan Community Churches, a gay-friendly Christian ministry begun in California in the 1960s. The local branch, MCC of the Gentle Shepherd, had a Deacon’s Closet program aimed at getting emergency supplies to people in trouble; when SWAP and MCC found each other, West said, the result was Martha’s Pantry.

The organization worked out of a spare bedroom, then a downtown basement, then a couple of rooms in a small downtown office building. It stayed there for 14 years, until rising rent forced it out earlier this year. (The rent had long been held down by a kind landlord, Smith said.)

A relocation invitation came from the United Methodist Church in Vancouver Heights, but the space wasn’t right. Even so, some 12-step programs that used to be hosted at Martha’s Pantry are now meeting at UMC. Meanwhile, Martha’s Pantry itself was temporarily parked in a storage locker.

Steep slope

It was the First Congregational United Church of Christ — an old friend and “welcoming” congregation — that turned out to be the best fit. Martha’s Pantry and MCC of the Gentle Shepherd moved in this summer. But Smith — who has nothing but gratitude for the church’s space and help — said she’s still wishing for something bigger and closer in. “It’s a great space, but it still doesn’t accommodate our needs well enough,” she said.

The First Congregational Church is a little remote, out in Hazel Dell, near one Highway 99 bus line and up a steep, narrow street without sidewalks. Martha’s Pantry has been known to shuttle some of its clients up and down that slope.

Martha’s Pantry serves a regular 60 to 70 families every month, Smith said, with a pretty steady annual budget of $30,000. That goes entirely for supplies and equipment. “Nobody gets a nickel” at the all-volunteer organization, she said, and there are regular health department inspections. Many volunteers have county food-handler cards. Smith is retired from the Bonneville Power Administration and her wife, Martha’s Pantry manager Jeanie Harman, is a retired newspaper advertising saleswoman. They’ve been together for 31 years. “This is a way of life for us,” Smith said.

Martha’s Pantry is a ministry of the MCC church, he said, but it is also a separate nonprofit corporation, welcoming everyone who needs it regardless of religion. It is a member of both the Clark County and Oregon food banks.

Grant funding and donations come from a variety of public and private sources — from Clark County Public Health, to businessman Don Orange of Hoesly ECO Auto & Tire, to “The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Raintree Empire,” a nonprofit based at Vancouver’s downtown gay-friendly Eagles Lodge.

The joy of it

Why Martha? The Biblical figure Martha of Bethany was a loving but complex hostess when Jesus and his party came to call: hospitable and caring, hardworking and practical, faithful but slightly cranky about her workload.

Crankiness is conspicuously absent at Martha’s Pantry. “The joy of it, for me, is that I always wanted to be pastor of a church that saw itself as moving forward, moving out,” said the MCC Church’s Rev. Ken Kerr, who arrived six years ago, after ministering in homeless shelters in Portland for 15 years. “That is my interpretation of the ministry of Jesus. He gave without any stipulation of any kind.

“Many of these people feel they’ve been really beaten down,” Kerr. When you share your most intense and personal joys and sorrows, triumphs and struggles, he said, “You make friends forever.”

Mindful of those friends’ intense dedication, Smith applied to the President’s Volunteer Service Award program to recognize those who devote hundreds of hours a year to Martha’s Pantry. More than 21 volunteers qualified for awards that were accompanied by a letter signed by the president — but Smith said still others did not want individual recognition, and some don’t bother documenting their hours carefully. That’s not the point for them, she said.

To recognize major supporters, Martha’s Pantry has harnessed the professional food-service skills of volunteer Willis Anderson, who regularly leads a group of volunteers to cater big functions. Portland’s FBI office was one recent recipient of a Martha’s Pantry luncheon; people at an Oct. 22 volunteer-recognition dinner enjoyed the same treatment, with Anderson and his crew — including Michele Kruchoski — decked out in black slacks, vests and ties as they kept their guests happy and fed.

Keeping clean

At Martha’s Pantry, happy and fed also means clean. The “I” in HIV/AIDS stands for immunodeficiency, and one way it works its mischief is by wrecking the body’s defenses against ailments and infections.

So the people of Martha’s Pantry labor to keep their environs germ-free. One major difference between Martha’s and other pantries is the premium put on providing personal hygiene and household cleaning supplies, from soap to toothpaste to floor cleaner and bleach.

These days, if you keep clean and reliably take your medications, safety officer Baxter Jones said, AIDS is no longer a death sentence. An estimated 1.2 million people are now living with HIV or AIDS in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But, Jones added: “I know too many people who have not been regular about that. You’ve got to take your meds, no ifs, ands or buts,” he said.

Those medications don’t come cheap — they can cost thousands of dollars per month. Many Martha’s Pantry people are trapped in a cycle of poverty, Smith said: disabled and unemployed, uninsured but dependent on costly medications — and so, needy and hungry.

Jones, 57, moved from Beaverton, Ore., to Vancouver eight years ago because housing, health and other benefits were better in Washington than Oregon, he said. The tale of his arrival is a favorite one at Martha’s Pantry: He showed up to lend a hand, with a household full of surplus furniture back in Beaverton. Ten minutes later another, and far more desperate, newcomer arrived — a woman fleeing domestic violence and needing to furnish an apartment for herself and her child. Jones was happy to donate his furniture. Pantry volunteers made the pickup and delivery.

“The demographics are changing drastically. AIDS is growing in the senior population and in children,” Smith said. “If a cure was found tomorrow, we would still be needed here.”