FRANKLIN — Cars continue pull up to the side door of the Interchurch Food Pantry of Johnson County just as they have every week since this pandemic took hold.
"A year ago at this time we quickly had to shift," Carol Phipps, the organization's executive director, said. "On faith, we hoped it would work out, and it did."
Phipps reflects on the past year in this COVID-19 pandemic. The pantry pivoted their normal operations in March 2020 to become a drive-thru pantry for the safety of volunteers and clients in need.
"We've learned a lot over the year," said Phipps, who now wears a mask and continues to check in on volunteers quickly filling boxed orders for the clients who now wait in their cars. "In March 2020, we didn't have a mask mandate or guidance to wear one from the CDC, but volunteers wore gloves and workers worried about sanitizing surfaces.
"Things change over time but now their procedures are second nature and efficient as they continue to serve the growing needs of the community. We've seen the giving side of this community."
Phipps looked back at the numbers from March 2020-March 2021 and said the need for food and hygiene items increased. During that time, the pantry served 22% more households than the previous year.
But giving also increased and at a faster rate.
In the past year, the pantry gave 45% more food to families in need in and around Johnson County.
There is no proof of income or job loss. They want to make it the process simple. They want to serve families in need and remove any barriers to getting help.
That's why now volunteers also drive their personal vehicles and drop off boxed donations to families who cannot get to the pantry for food. On the day WRTV stopped by, 15 families received food this way.
Clients also have more of a say in the food they receive, which not only gives them some dignity in the process, but it cuts down on food waste for things they do not need.
"If they want soup they select the flavors of soups that they want," Phipps said. "If they want canned vegetables, they pick. Is it corn, peas, carrots?"
The clients fill out order forms in their cars and hand them to a volunteer at the door like Scarlett Syse.
"I take the menus out to the clients who drive through," said Syse, who started volunteering at the pantry in June 2020.
A major concern early in the pandemic was that the volunteer base include many who are elderly. However, while those folks stayed home and safe, younger volunteers like Syse stepped up to fill their shoes.
Over the past months, Syse formed connections with these neighbors in need and she gets a firsthand look at the impacts of COVID-19.
"I've seen families that have had to move in together because they've been evicted from their homes or apartments," Syse said. "We have a whole age range that come here, from young single moms to older people to folks right in the middle who may have lost a job for the first time in their lives, and are desperate for food."
Syse became emotional when she told WRTV about the stories of some of the clients she met during her time as a volunteer on the front lines.
One story about an Indiana veteran stood out.
"He came through the food line here and he told me this is the first time he had ever been here. And he spent the last half hour going up and down the road trying to decide if he should come," Syse said.
"He said, 'I'm so embarrassed to be here,' and I kind of got on him. I said, 'There's no reason for you to be embarrassed.' And I looked up at his hat and it said 'veteran' on it. And I said, 'You're a veteran right?' And he goes, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well you have given to your country your whole life and now we are going to help you a little bit.'"
As much as volunteers like Syse are a lifeline to people in need like the veteran, she says the help goes both ways.
"I've come to really care about and love these people. This has been a gift to me to work here," Syse said. "And I'm getting emotional, but I really care for them. They are good people. They are just down on their luck and they are going to get back on their feet."
Visit https://www.jcpantry.org/ for more information on how to donate, volunteer and the hours of operation at their facility in Franklin.