After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the JOY Food Pantry in Jonestown saw an increase in need and a decrease in food and monetary donations from other non-profits that supported them in the past.

Those factors were the perfect ingredients for a potential disaster that could have eaten into the pantry’s food supply – especially after JOY saw their clientele double in the aftermath of the pandemic.

What happened next, however, was nothing short of a God-given miracle, according to Linda Wood, Volunteer Director of Jonestown Outreach PantrY (JOY).

“While it is true that our donations from both civic and social clubs are down, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the community has responded in extraordinary ways during this time,” said Wood. “We’re very grateful for the help from our generous community, who have continued to help us serve our hungry friends and neighbors.”

While non-profit groups couldn’t sponsor food drives or raise money for the charity, local residents stepped up to the plate, literally, to help others in their time of need. (JOY’s service area is Northern Lebanon School District, according to Wood.)

“You’d be amazed by the number of people who gave us their stimulus checks, it wasn’t like 50 or even 20, but the fact that we had a number of individuals donate their entire stimulus checks was amazing,” Wood said. “People were seeing pictures of people on the news in long food lines and I believe it tugged at their heart strings and they wanted to find a way to help, so they wrote us a check.”

The Northern Lebanon SD football team held a food and money drive for the charity.

Although churches were closed for months after the virus hit the area, several still found a way to collect financial donations for JOY, which was founded by St. John’s UCC in October 2011 with support in the planning stages from Jonestown UMC and Zion Lutheran Church.

“Some of the churches in the mountains up by the Gap, somehow or other, these little tiny churches really came through with donations,” Wood said. “Those churches have very generous parishioners.”

Whether by sheer luck, good fortune or divine intervention, one of JOY’s annual supporters, The Perse (Perseverance Fire Company’s social club) made a timely special donation in early February of 2020, just one month before COVID closed the club, and just two months after the club had made its annual year-end contribution in 2019.

Adam Harmon, Club Steward, The Perse, said the club made that special donation to honor Bernie Boltz, who retired last year as the company’s fire chief after serving 20 years on the department’s board.

“We gave $1,000 to that charity because we knew it was special to him,” said Harmon. “As a non-profit, we want to do good things with our money, so we made that donation to JOY Pantry in honor of him.”

The generosity of the community is a heartwarming story – especially when you consider what could have been.

In 2019, JOY had 32,092 pounds of food donated but received only 25,380, or 6,700 pounds less, in 2020. Moreover, financial contributions from local non-profits, which help the charity pay the rent and keep the lights on, were also down last year.

“We doubled the number of homes (from 45 to 90) that needed food assistance in 2020 compared to previous years,” said Wood. “We heard lots of sad stories. People told us that they never had to do this before and they felt awkward coming to us.”

Although conversations were kept to a minimum since food pick-ups were conducted curbside as a way to maintain social distancing, Wood and the other 15 volunteers who are currently running JOY still offered words of hope after people shared their feelings.

“Our response was that’s why we’re here,” Wood said. “We give them hope, tell them things will improve. Our charity is here to help with people’s food expenses so that they will have money to make car payments, or their rent, their utilities or whatever other bills they may have.”

A food box distributed by JOY contains the usual household staples: bread, eggs and milk, and enough cans or boxes of fruit, pasta or vegetables to last two weeks since the pantry is open bi-weekly. Additionally, between 40 and 60 families with children have received a child-oriented box of food the volunteer staff call “Kid Bags” throughout the pandemic.

“Kid Bags, or Food for Kids, is a program that we run in the summer to ensure that our children receive at least one hot meal a day,” Wood said. “Canned pasta, soup, canned chicken, mac and cheese – things we know that most kids like. So we distributed the Kid Bags when the schools were shut down due to the pandemic.”

Wood, who is a retired teacher from the Northern Lebanon School District, said the children are a reason the pantry was founded, and helping them and their families during a global pandemic became part of the charity’s focus.

“When everything was closed, we knew we had to stay open,” Wood said. “When the schools were shuttered, we went into overdrive knowing that we had to help by providing kid-friendly meals.”

The volunteers did this even in the face of great uncertainty: uncertainty about exposure to a virus that attacks senior citizens, which is the demographic for most of the volunteers; uncertainty about how long the virus will keep businesses and schools closed; and the uncertainty of how long they could provide nourishment to their neighbors.

“While we did get financial donations from the community, we had trepidation about going to the local supermarket to shop because no one knew what was happening,” Wood said. “We wanted to serve the community but those were scary times when the pandemic first hit.”

Despite all of the unknowns, JOY pantry staff refused to let doubt or fear eat away at their trust in God and because of the generosity of the local community.

“I do have a strong faith that God will provide and because of that, I believe his caring love and courage will help others to give,” Wood said. “We are encouraged to be good Christians and share what we have with others who are less fortunate. The Northern Lebanon community is a giving community and I believe that our neighbors will help us through this pandemic.”

Those interested in assisting the pantry with monetary donations or food contributions can contact JOY via their donations page on their website.

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James Mentzer is a freelance writer whose published works include the books Pennsylvania Manufacturing: Alive and Well; Bucks County: A Snapshot in Time; United States Merchant Marine Academy: In Service to the Nation 1943-2018; A Century of Excellence: Spring Brook Country Club 1921-2021; Lancaster...