Food pantry with big heart serves changing need

Amid growing hunger, HOPE helps people 'across sociological boundaries'

Posted 8/11/17

Late one afternoon in October, a man knocked at the door of HOPE food pantry. His two children stood next to him.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he told Bart Sayyah. "I have a job, but we don't have any food in our pantry to feed our kids. Can you …

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Food pantry with big heart serves changing need

Amid growing hunger, HOPE helps people 'across sociological boundaries'

Posted

Late one afternoon in October, a man knocked at the door of HOPE food pantry. His two children stood next to him.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he told Bart Sayyah. "I have a job, but we don't have any food in our pantry to feed our kids. Can you help me?”

Sayyah, executive director of Helping Our People Excel, a nonprofit that runs a food pantry and thrift store in Englewood, put down his satchel and took the family inside.

The man walked away with four boxes filled with more than $300 worth of food, a Halloween costume for his son and winter clothing for both the children.

“When I saw the man, it just pierced my heart,” Sayyah, 53, said. “I saw myself in him. He was mid-30s, educated, soft-spoken, gentle. And to see the look in his eye, what it must have taken him to say, 'I don't have any food at home to feed my kids' — it just floored me. How someone who has a job, has an education, is struggling.”

A growing need

HOPE food pantry sits at 3940 S. Broadway and opened in January 2015, but its story goes back to 2001.

A businesswoman, whom Sayyah said would prefer to remain unnamed, was running a home health-care business in Lakewood for people with long-term disabilities and began to notice a significant need for food in clients' homes, Sayyah said. So she decided to start a food pantry.

The organization grew from a storefront to an 800-square-foot pantry at the location of the woman's business. HOPE became a registered nonprofit in Colorado in 2007 and a tax-exempt nonprofit in 2009, Sayyah said. The location in Lakewood closed in May 2016, making way for the Englewood pantry where HOPE's Attic thrift store was a new addition.

HOPE now serves about 150 to 175 households a week, double what it served when he became executive director in August 2016, Sayyah said. Since last September, the pantry has been giving out food two days a week. It has served more than 2,200 unique households from January through June this year.

HOPE's clients come mainly from the Englewood area, but some come from places as far away as Thornton, sometimes farther.

Faces of food insecurity

With the continuous increase in the Denver metro area's population in recent years, HOPE's staff said it's seen a change in the amount and demopgraphics of the people it serves.

Sayyah and Catherine McHenry, operations director, added that the pantry sees many working people and working families. Sayyah said the clients used to be largely homeless, transient or disabled people or seniors with limited income. Now, there are more people who say they are working, he said. Most of the working seem to have a roof of some sort — a house they're sharing, an apartment or a motel.

“Anecdotally, we've seen an increase in the homeless population,” Sayyah said. “We've seen a decrease in available affordable housing ... that increase in rent is causing people to have less budget for actual food, and they're making decisions not between medicine and food, but food and a roof.”

McHenry, 60, an Aurora resident, is one of the handful of staff that's worked with the organization since its 2001 beginnings. She said she's noticed differences ever since 2012 when recreational marijuana became legal.

McHenry said she doesn't judge the decision to legalize pot, but noted that more people struggle financially because of it as utilities and food costs have increased with the population growth.

“I don't know how some people are making it ... there's a real aversion for communities to coalesce and do something,” Sayyah said. “There's a tendency to shove that (problem) toward downtown Denver, the shelters down there. And they're not adequate enough to handle that entire population, especially in severe weather.”

Sayyah said 85 percent of people the pantry serves have shelter, whether that's an apartment, house or motel room. But he said the clients are struggling to maintain it.

Sayyah said even people who are making about $33,000 per year come in to the pantry, especially if they have children.

“There are many people in our society who are not beyond the reach of this kind of safety net,” said Sayyah, a Castle Rock resident who said he's seen clients from places like Highlands Ranch, where hunger is not typically thought to be an issue.

Giving what you get

That kind of help was a turnaround for Barbara “Bobbi” Marshall, 75, store manager of HOPE's Attic. She's a food pantry client at HOPE who decided to volunteer and became part of what she calls “a second family.”

“I was a recluse for a long time,” said Marshall, who has been on government housing assistance. After working with the staff and customers at HOPE, people don't bother her anymore. “I just do my thing,” she said.

Marshall, who described herself as empathetic and "a hugger," said she tries to help people who feel embarrassed about coming to a food pantry. It's often an emotional scene.

"We’ve had people break down and cry," Sayyah said. "I’ve broken down and cried when some people have walked through the door. It’s a challenge."

The pantry is open 11 a m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Fridays, but its service often goes beyond that.

“We have an unwritten motto here,” Sayyah said. “If someone knocks on our door, and someone's here, and they need food, we're open ... We always feed them.”

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