Published April 18, 2019


NORTH READING — The North Reading Food Pantry has been a point of civic pride for many decades.

Run entirely by volunteers who know how to stretch dimes into dollars, there is virtually no segment of the North Reading community that has not stepped up to donate non-perishable items to one or more of its year-round drives, such as the town-wide USPS letter carriers drive held every Mother’s Day weekend.

Perhaps you’ve written a check or helped organize a food drive for Rotary, your church or business, or a son or daughter’s scout troop, team, classroom or dance troupe. In whatever way you’ve helped to sustain this group, by doing so, you have enabled neighbors who struggle to make ends meet feed themselves and their children. And those savings are used to tend to other pressing household bills. In short, the Pantry provides stability for families by helping them remain in their homes or apartments in the town they call home.

Founded in the mid-1990s as a new venture of the ecumenical group, Christian Community Service (CCS), the Food Pantry has had several “homes” over the years, including donated space above the Hornet’s Nest until a fire in that structure forced the Pantry to move down the street. That’s when Mike Hartery donated space for several years above his new garage to the rear of his gas station and repair shop, then known as MH Auto.

The Pantry’s current space behind the old stage in the gymnasium of Town Hall (built as an elementary school in the late 1950s) has served it well probably since about 2002, according to the current CCS Chairwoman, Ellen Wiklanski.

However, they are often bursting at the seams and must set up temporary tables in the gymnasium to have enough space for perishables like the fruits and breads purchased in bulk from the Greater Boston Food Bank. An old storage closet in the gym is used to house a freezer and two refrigerators, donated over the years by Rotary, to ensure the pantry can provide fresh foods as well as canned and boxed goods to clients.

A new home on the horizon

With all this in mind, Wiklanski and her army of volunteers recently received some exciting news from the members of the Union Congregational Church and their pastor, Rev. Dr. Richard Hughes.

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Union Congregational Church (UCC) in 2020, the church will give a house on its property to the North Reading Food Pantry.

This extremely generous gift means the pantry will finally have a permanent home of its own and will more than double its existing space by transforming the building church members refer to as “the annex” and which is currently only used for storage.

Wiklanski said the Food Pantry has about 465 square feet on the stage at Town Hall, which can be accessed by its own exterior door without interfering with activities at Town Hall (except those taking place in the gym). But CCS volunteers are only on-site for a total of eight hours per week, so the rest of the time the pantry is locked up tight.

To put it into perspective, transforming this small white clapboard Colonial building that faces Hill Street into a “forever home” for the pantry means CCS will have an accessible building with a first floor of at least 1,100 square feet plus additional second floor storage of about 900 square feet. It is a dream come true.

They will have dedicated parking and will be able to design a space that maintains each client’s privacy during in-take interviews in the small offices that will be incorporated into the design.

But Wiklanski is most excited about realizing a dream of obtaining a walk-in refrigerator for the Pantry.

“I have already written a grant to the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) seeking $10,000,” she said. The GBFB does require that they have matching funds for such investments and she will have them from private donors.

“I also want to build a dumb waiter to the second floor,” she said, noting that the vast majority of the Food Pantry volunteers are retirees so it would alleviate a lot of physical labor for them if they can build this into the building’s re-design.

Pointing to the many large banana boxes scattered around the gym filled with fresh fruit in preparation for that evening’s visit by clients, Wiklanski says, “I tell anyone who wants to be a volunteer that they need to be able to lift 25 pounds, have good eyesight because we’re reading a lot of food labels, and they need to be able to stand for at least two hours.”

Estate of Charles Anderson

The church is able to make such a generous offer in large part due to the estate of Charles Anderson, a decorated WWII veteran who left many thousands of dollars to numerous charitable causes, both locally and regionally. Mr. Anderson’s late wife Edith was a member of the UCC and he gave the funds the church will use in her honor.

Just as remarkable is the fact that Mr. Anderson also left his home on Woodland Drive to the church to be used as its new parsonage. According to Rev. Hughes, the congregation has voted to allow many changes to take place on the grounds of the church that will usher in the start of its fourth century. An off-site parsonage will enable the church to tear down the existing parsonage, and expand its parking area while also offering the annex to the Food Pantry.

To make all of this possible, CCS has established a new capital fund they are calling “The Food Pantry HOME Fund.” They are looking at an investment of $220,000 to transform this building into a modern, ADA-compliant pantry.

Anyone who wishes to make a donation to this specific fund may do so by making a check payable to “HOME Fund/CCS” and mailing it to: CCS, P.O. Box 626, North Reading MA 01864. CCS is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

At last week’s Lobster Bisque Lenten Luncheon, Rev. Hughes made an announcement to all those gathered that $2,000 raised from those dining on lobster bisque and buying take-home quarts will be donated to the HOME Fund.

Hughes said they are excited about this project to honor their 300th anniversary of serving the community. They did not want to sit around looking at old dusty scrapbooks to recall the way they were. Instead, they have chosen a path to lead the way forward in the spirit of true service and charity to the community.