NORTH TONAWANDA – Bonnie Shaffer was at a low point in her life when she happened into the staff job as coordinator of the food pantry her minister, the Rev. Frank Wright, helped found more than three decades ago.

“My friend found this little article in her church bulletin: ‘If you’re looking for a part-time job, this would be very good for you,’ Shaffer said of what led her to the position she’s had for 10 years. “Come to find out, she sent me here. When I walked in, everybody knew me when I was young. My father was instrumental in founding this Twin Cities Outreach Program, and this was 25 years earlier. I truly believe things happen for a reason.”

Winter is the most difficult time for clients. The ingredients the pantry supplies for holiday feasts make it a little easier. As the season begins, the pantry organizes two special extras for Christmas and Thanksgiving: about 150 boxes, still called baskets, with turkeys and side dishes.

“They appreciate that because they can’t afford to buy extra things. We try to provide them with a full-course holiday meal, turkey, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables,” said Shaffer. “I see the same thing every time of the year. Like a revolving door. Just a constant need. They need us every month.”

Shaffer, 50, is newly married for the second time and a grandmother. She oversees the operation at Rich Street, where 2,640 client visits were counted last year. People who come include unemployed men, single-parent households and, in the last few years, an increasing number of older people who can’t make ends meet with Social Security.

“All of these families are either eligible for food stamps or public assistance, disability, unemployment. I am also trying to accommodate the working poor working for minimum wage,” she said. “I also try to accommodate those that have had emergency situations. For example, having their food stamps cut or having them revoked. If they call me and have three little kids – absolutely I’m not going to say, ‘No’ to them.”

People are already asking about getting Thanksgiving fixings?

I think they look forward to it. They’re asking, “Is it time for us to sign up for our basket?”

Are people hungry sometimes when they come?

There are some. You can tell. They want to come look at the bread right away. They want to eat.

What are some of the most popular things that people pick out?

Pancake mix, syrup, cereal, peanut butter and jelly. Any kind of frozen meat. Fruit, vegetables. It’s mostly canned. Some of the farmers donate their fresh produce. Personal care products: shampoo, toilet paper, toothbrushes. These are items they can’t buy with their food stamps. We try to provide baby food. Another item that is becoming more and more popular are pet food items. The list goes on and on. Those are just some of the top ones. We’re always in need of turkeys.

Can you tell me a story of a memorable client?

I had a family, the mother was working, the father was in the middle of trying to get disability. The kids were in school. They didn’t know anything about getting any kind of help. The mother came in, and she sat down and we go through the whole interview process.

She was so thankful and had come for quite a few months. Finally, her husband did get disability, and her income went up, and she turned around and started giving to us.

That’s a pretty, happy-ending story. That happens, not a lot, but when it does, it’s like playing it forward. It makes them feel good, and it makes me feel good. Hopefully they’ll never have to use us again, but when they do, we’re here.

Any funny experiences?

Sometimes you have to have a little, just a strange sense of humor. We have this area where they can kind of look through and take items where people donate. Bread, donuts, donated by local vendors.

Normally, in the past, we used to have so much that we never had to put a limit on the bread. They’re cutting down. Now I’m having to tell the ladies, “Please tell the clients it’s two breads and one sweet.” This one particular woman. She forgot to tell the person.

We had a person with two big bags of stuff. When we approached him, he said, “Well, nobody told me.”

He tried to take as much as he could possibility fit. We did have to ask him to please put some back. We did have to tell him to turn around and look at the waiting room, and the waiting room was full of people.

Can you tell me about the low point in your life you mentioned before you got this job?

It was a bad experience at a job. In my mind, in my heart, I believe that it was meant to be that I would be here.

I worked for 20 years as a hairdresser. When I was 30 years old, I decided I wanted to go to college and get an education, an associate’s degree [to be a] paralegal. That was my training.

My degree has nothing to do with human services, but I think about things, analyze things, to see where we can make things better.

Is there something people should understand about the pantry, but don’t?

A lot of times when I’m in social situations and talk about what I do and where we are and some people say, “Oh, I didn’t even know that was there,” and they’ve lived in North Tonawanda area their whole lives.

People don’t know we’re here unless they need us. That is one of the biggest things I’m trying to change. Whether it’s for assistance or volunteering. We are located in the Twin Cities Outreach building. Right off of Payne Avenue, behind the North Tonawanda High School.

We service the Tonawandas area: Wheatfield, Pendleton and City of Tonawanda.

As a whole, I try to treat all of our clients with a certain amount of diginity so that they feel comfortable that they can come back on a monthly basis.

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