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Pantry's new co-managers play to their strengths

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For the new managers of the InterChurch Food Pantry, every day presents a whirlwind of challenges.

Canned soup, cereal, peanut butter and other food has to be ordered for the 2,800 people the pantry serves each month. New donations of money and food have to be found in the Johnson County community.

They have to coordinate more than 200 volunteers, scheduling their days to come in and do everything from stocking shelves to signing up new clients and unloading pallets of food.

But for Sheila Morton and Carol Phipps, the duties are nothing new.

After years of volunteering at the food pantry, Morton and Phipps have taken over as its newest co-managers. The two have split up duties: Phipps handles bills and upkeep of the pantry, while Morton focuses on fundraising.

Though they bring different talents and unique strengths to the position, it’s their united stance on the value of the food pantry that will make them successful, board president Pat Foster said.

“They stepped up when we needed a new way of doing things, and this new way has worked out excellently,” she said. “One person can’t manage the pantry by themselves. They’ve been excellent for stepping up to this, and they’ve been excellent volunteers.”

The past two years have been the busiest the food pantry has ever been, Phipps said. Last year, 33,712 people received food, down slightly from the 34,644 in 2011. Part of that has been an increased ability to help people, but the driving force has been more people in need.

Some have just lost their jobs and need a slight boost to help them get through a rough patch.

Others are disabled or elderly and can’t work. They rely on the pantry to survive.

Morton and Phipps take over at a time when the need and the pressure on the pantry is the greatest.

“We need to make sure people are aware of the needs of the hungry in Johnson County. We want to take care of these people,” Morton said. “It should be everybody’s priority.”

Morton first came to the InterChurch Food Pantry after hearing about it during a Kiwanis meeting about five years ago. She and her husband, Joe, started volunteering a few days a month helping to stock shelves and greet potential clients.

Growing up herself in a single-parent home, she can remember times when her family didn’t have enough to eat. She also recalls generous people who helped them find food.

“It’s my way of giving back,” she said. “We just reach out and help people. I’m a people person.”

Phipps’ church, Prince of Peace United Church of Christ, is one of the supporters of the food pantry. She had supported it financially in the past. After retiring from her job at Eli Lilly Co. about two years ago, she went to the pantry to help fill orders and keep herself busy.

Foster identified quickly that Phipps was skilled at fundraising. A charming and friendly person, she was exactly what the pantry’s fundraising committee needed, Foster said.

In April, the existing pantry manager, Elaine Maurer, stepped down for another job. Phipps offered to help write grants for the pantry, while Morton took a greater role in the day-to-day operation.

“Sheila and I both saw that the pantry desperately needed managers,” Phipps said. “We were both interested in taking that leadership role, but neither of us wanted to do it full time.”

The manager position at the food pantry is a volunteer job. So the two women suggested a solution to Foster — sharing the responsibilities and breaking it up according to their strengths.

Phipps specializes in finding sources of money and food for the pantry, while Morton is adept at balancing the books and paying bills. The two complement each other, Foster said.

Phipps also has started working closely with churches, civic groups and other agencies to drum up more money. The pantry’s food budget is about $8,000 per month, which doesn’t include all the food received from food banks, the government and donations.

Getting the community to support the pantry requires creativity, Phipps said.

Just before Thanksgiving, a church called Morton and said they had dozens of frozen turkeys left over from a giveaway. If the food pantry organizers could get them within an hour, they could have them for free.

So Phipps rallied her family late on a Friday night to load as much poultry into the cars as they could. They came away with 39 frozen turkeys and 39 baskets of fixings for their clients.

Before the holidays, a church donated a box full of Christmas stockings to pass out to families with children. Another church had Thanksgiving baskets to distribute, while Camp Atterbury provided new and used toys.

“We want to reach out within the community to let people know that we’re here to help. We want to follow through and make it as easy for our clients as possible,” Morton said.

As the two women get more comfortable in their roles, they also have plans to help improve the pantry.

The pantry board has embarked on a capital campaign to raise $20,000. The money will go to air conditioning for the pantry’s warehouse. Since starting about five months ago, they have raised nearly half the needed amount, Phipps said.

They also are partnering with Lord’s Locker to point clients toward additional assistance with the clothes, coats and furniture that agency can provide.

A listing of social agencies is given to each client to help in other areas.

“In our role, we’re able to find those opportunities to connect people to additional help. Those opportunities are out there, and to connect them with the needy is what’s so special,” Phipps said.

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