One of Juneau’s oldest food pantries will close this month

Helping Hands volunteers
Fred Jackson (center) waits outside Helping Hands with his son, Louis, on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KTOO)

One of Juneau’s oldest food pantries is slated to close at the end of the month.

Helping Hands is a nonprofit that’s been around for almost four decades. Volunteers collect food from local stores and distribute it two nights a week to anyone who needs it. Now it doesn’t have enough cash — or volunteers — to stay open.

On a cold Friday evening, several dozen people waited at Switzer Village Mobile Park Rec Center for the food bank’s doors to open. Many of them were regulars.

“I’ve been going here for many years now,” said Fred Johnson, who waited with his son. “It’s sad to hear. It’s gotten us through some very tough times.”

His grandkids visit on the weekend, so tonight he’s looking for special snacks.

Pam Bearden is chatting with a friend further up the line. She says she loves that supermarkets donate food that’s past its “sell by” date but is still good to eat.

“It helps all of us kind of stretch a buck because it’s really hard for a lot of folks right now, so I’m grateful,” she said. “This is a big deal. I mean, years ago all this good food got thrown out in the garbage.”

Inside the rec hall it’s warm and bright. The walls are lined with shelves of bread. A cooler full of yogurt hums. Shopping carts loaded with meat, soda pop and huge cans of baked beans are ready for guests.

“It’s pretty sad because it’s a great organization to volunteer for,” said Sierra Gorbutt. She started volunteering here three years ago. Now she’s one of the only volunteers left, but even she is leaving soon — to take on a full-time job.

Helping Hands volunteers
Sierra Gorbutt and Kevin Fortwengler are the two remaining Helping Hands volunteers. Pictured on Nov. 4, 2022. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KTOO)

“We would still probably be standing strong, but with the corona [virus pandemic] — it ate up all the savings to keep this place running,” she said.

Helping Hands usually holds fundraisers throughout the year, but the pandemic shut down those revenue streams.

Gorbutt says everything they can’t give away will go to the dump. She points to a shopping basket loaded with kibble — it’s the last of the dog food.

Karen Fortwengler is the director of Helping Hands. She took over leadership after her mother stepped down from the role about a year ago.

“Trust me, it’s not been an easy decision,” she said. She was emotional thinking about the closure. “I’ve been struggling for months to keep this place afloat. And the money’s gotten down there so low that I can’t do it anymore.”

To stay open, she says she’d need about $30,000 that she just doesn’t have. And she said even if she did, she doesn’t have the volunteers to staff it any longer.

Two more volunteers slip through the doors before Helping Hands opens for the evening. One of them is Crystal Johnson from the Lions Club. She comes in every Friday to help out.

Helping Hands food
Sierra Gorbutt says the soda pop and canned food are typically gone by the end of the evening. Helping Hands estimates it serves about 100 guests each night. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KTOO)

“This is actually my favorite day of the week, I tell everybody,” Johnson said. “Because I get to come down here and meet people and just get to say ‘hi’ and have that chance to do something nice that makes somebody say, ‘Ooh, I kind of matter.’”

People start filing in when the doors open at 5:30 p.m. Bread, chips and canned foods move from the shelves to shopping bags as the room fills with people and the line outside shrinks.

Helping Hands is now open only on Fridays due to the volunteer staff shortage. It will close for good on Nov. 25.

The Southeast Alaska Food Bank will still be open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. They also have a list of other local food pantries on their website.

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