Good Neighbors has provided emergency food supplies in Akron for more than 50 years, but a drastic increase in hungry residents, decreased funding and an aging volunteer base present serious challenges for the nonprofit.
The volunteer-run program, tucked into Goodyear Heights near the namesake tire-maker, provides emergency food supplies to families throughout Akron and is the largest food pantry of its type in Summit County. Last year, Good Neighbors fed 9,000 adults and 7,000 children.
As of September, clientele had increased almost 35 percent over last year, said Monte York, long-range planner for the nonprofit. “Business is up, so finances are tight,” he said, noting the winter months often provide a seasonal uptick in families that need food.
Five days a week, one can find volunteers stocking grocery carts amid rows of food and freezers in the unadorned building, a former Boy Scout hall. The work area resembles a small grocery store, and the volunteers talk over coffee between orders. Most of these workers are retirement age, and their dedication indicates a genuine enjoyment of feeding those in need, as some have clocked upwards of 30 years with the organization.
Don Burgett, who has volunteered at Good Neighbors for 20 years, said waiting on the customers is his favorite part of the job. For Dick Young, who has worked at Good Neighbors for 26 years, helping the community is what brings him to perform this non-paid work for others.
But the median volunteer age also raises concern for York, whose role involves looking at the long-term outlook for the nonprofit. “We are aging out volunteers,” he said. “There’s a real need to find people who can spend 11:30 to 3 pushing a grocery cart around.” York said he hopes this outlook can include passing the grocery cart on to a younger base of volunteers.
There is a definite spirit of camaraderie among volunteers, said Young, who worked a number of years in disaster services for the Red Cross. After retiring, Young continued his philanthropic efforts, volunteering at Good Neighbors, along with the Salvation Army and the Haven of Rest.
Concerns aside, the Good Neighbors citywide workforce is around 300 (35 work at the Goodyear Heights location), and the “business plan” can’t be beat: With the exception of one part-time administrator, the group is administered entirely by volunteers, and the building is provided rent-free by the nearby Goodyear Presbyterian Church.
The food pantry does have to maintain the building and cover utilities, but there’s little to no overhead for the organization, meaning donations of money, food or clothing go directly to the clients rather than being funneled through administrative costs.
The Goodyear Heights Good Neighbors is one of a handful across the city, but York said each location operates independently and is self-supporting. Some locations only give out clothes, while others give out both food and clothing.
At the Goodyear Heights facility, food is the focus, and during better times, the group worked from a fixed menu. Now the menu changes frequently — and precariously — but workers are sure to supply three days’ worth of food for each family member in need.
While staples like meat, potatoes, eggs, bread and vegetables are part of a typical order, sometimes Good Neighbors is lucky enough to acquire fresh fruit and vegetables, and on a recent visit, Acme Fresh Market donated baked goods like doughnuts, cakes and cookies. Volunteers also hand out coffee with orders, and non-food essentials like soap and toilet paper.
Extending the mantra of helping others, Good Neighbors relies on other nonprofits for its operations, as well. Its clients are referrals from Info Line, and much of its food comes from the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. If the food is given to the regional food bank, it’s then donated to a pantry like Good Neighbors. But if the food bank buys the food, Good Neighbors also must purchase this food, said York.
As the economy falters, the family size of clients subsequently increases, he added.
Good Neighbors is always in need of volunteers, cash donations and food. Contributions can be mailed to Good Neighbors Inc., 1453 Goodyear Blvd., Akron, OH 44305. For more information, call 330-733-1453 or visit www.good-neighbors.org.