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Aug. 8, 2022

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Martha’s Pantry glad to be back home again

Return to space at church after arson fire comes with new walk-in freezer, ‘thrift store’

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
Volunteer Aaron Mabey, dressed as Santa Claus, walks between storage areas on the ground floor of Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell while preparing free meals for Martha’s Pantry, which will distribute the food and goodies in time for Christmas.
Volunteer Aaron Mabey, dressed as Santa Claus, walks between storage areas on the ground floor of Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell while preparing free meals for Martha’s Pantry, which will distribute the food and goodies in time for Christmas. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Vicki Smith gets early tips about great grocery bargains and giveaways from supermarket managers she knows, and unsolicited donations from agencies like the Bonneville Power Administration, where she used to be fleet manager. Chuck’s Produce recently donated supplies for 100 Christmas dinners. Bonneville called to offer boxes and boxes of toilet paper.

It happens because she makes the rounds, Smith said, and makes friends. “It’s all about relationships,” said Smith, the longtime executive director of Martha’s Pantry, Clark County’s only basic-supplies resource and community center for people with HIV/AIDS.

“Vicki is an awesome bridge builder,” said senior pastor Jennifer Brownell of the Vancouver United Church of Christ in Hazel Dell. That’s where Martha’s Pantry returned this past fall, a little over two years after an arson fire closed both church and pantry in May 2016.

When that happened, the Vancouver Heights United Methodist Church stepped in with a warm welcome and even an offer to let Martha’s Pantry build a permanent building on its MacArthur Boulevard land. That was a lovely dream that ran right into permitting and financial realities, Smith said. Martha’s Pantry’s annual budget is around $40,000 a year in donations and grants, and nearly all that goes for food bargains, she said; permitting and building to code — complete with sidewalks and plumbing infrastructure, as required — would have cost many times that.

“They were great friends to us, but it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Smith.

You can help

• Martha’s Pantry needs donations and volunteer help. Visit or call 360-695-1480.

So, when reconstruction at the Hazel Dell church was done, Martha’s Pantry moved back in — to bigger, better digs on the ground floor. Both its room-temperature storage and its refrigerators are larger than before, and there’s a new walk-in freezer unit outside. There’s also a “thrift store” where all the donated clothing, housewares, school supplies and other items are free; it’s called Michele’s Closet and was the pet project of late volunteer Michele Kruchoski.

Also, Smith said, Martha’s Pantry recently won a $1,000 grant and spent it on a washer-dryer and a small shower unit for one of the church’s downstairs bathrooms.

“Some of our people are pretty destitute,” Smith said. “If you really want to take care of people, start with basic needs. Martha’s Pantry isn’t just a food pantry. Our mission is to improve the quality of life for people with HIV and AIDS” — and even for just-plain-needy folks who walk in the door, she said. “We serve everybody,” Smith said — they just have to track different funding streams for clients who’ve been “referred” and those who haven’t, she said.

It feels right to have Martha’s Pantry back, Brownell said. “We believe in loving people on the margins,” she said. “We have so much in common. We are working toward the same goals. It feels like they came home and we are partners again.”

Martha’s Pantry’s regular operating hours are 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday at 1220 N.E. 68th Street in Hazel Dell. Call 360-695-1480. Martha’s Pantry is a ministry of the Metropolitan Community Church of the Gentle Shepherd, which meets at 12:30 p.m. Sundays, down the hall in its own ground-floor sanctuary here.

Spicy and sweet

If Christmas is in December, November is major bargain-scouting season for Smith, she said. She spends that month hunting hard for the best deals and the best quality to go onto Martha’s shelves and into those Christmas boxes. Food pantry food doesn’t have to be the cheapest and blandest, she said — and she pointed out a top shelf where a whole line of spices stood.

“It’s empowering” to be able to choose your own supplies, she said, and prepare them the way you want to. The days of food pantries handing clients generic bags of like-them-or-not leftovers are gone, Smith said; these days food pantry clients are treated like shoppers and given options. Martha’s Pantry is also an important source of pet food (for people whose pooches may be their only companions, Smith said) and hygiene and cleaning supplies (crucial for people whose immune systems are compromised by HIV).

On a recent Monday night, two different sets of volunteers came together to pack those Christmas meals for Martha’s Pantry people. Kids and parents from the Vancouver United Church were joined by a others who came up from the Vancouver Heights church; they assembled 100 meals — turkey, potatoes, canned vegetables, stuffing mix, hot chocolate, pie and sparking cider — from entirely donated goods. Later in the week came packing of school supplies and toys for families with children.

All were going to be delivered to Martha’s Pantry people in time for Christmas, Smith said. “We’re the only pantry in Clark County that does deliveries,” she said.

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