HELP Beyond the Holidays

Town Courier staff writer Maureen Friedman packs bags at the Gaithersburg HELP food pantry.

The modern American holiday celebration is often focused on reciprocal giving and getting of presents. However, at Gaithersburg HELP, an organization that has been serving the needy of the city since 1968, the holiday season was just one part of a year of continual giving to those who cannot give back.

Gaithersburg HELP though, recently moved locations, leaving its site on North Frederick Avenue and opening a new center in the Festival at Muddy Branch Shopping Center at 301 Muddy Branch Road. Here, a fully volunteer staff collects, sorts, bags and delivers groceries and other essentials to area residents who are struggling to live under the poverty line.

HELP has 60 regular or semi-regular pantry workers who distribute groceries during the evening, as well as 10 people who sort, shelve and bag food. Volunteers Peg Welborne (baby needs), Suzzane Price (ordering) and Theresa Vobe (director) are present virtually every day.

HELP is designated as an emergency food bank. The organization can only serve each family eight times a year due to high demand. Because of this, HELP clients are referred to other local organizations for assistance through the rest of the year.

“We just can’t do it all,” said Vobe.

Among the other area aid organizations are Upper Montgomery Assistance Network (UMAN), Family Services, Manna Food Center, St. Martin Catholic Church and St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church.

In order to receive assistance from Gaithersburg HELP, a potential client must first call the food database. This number is manned daily by two food coordinators, one Spanish-speaking and one English-speaking only. The client then gives the food coordinator their family’s name and number of members, including how many children and adults and whether they need diapers and/or baby food. When clients arrive at the center in the evening to pick up their groceries, they are required to have some kind of Gaithersburg I.D. The pantry workers then check this list with the name on the I.D. before serving the family member.

“We don’t check anyone’s financial information,” said Vobe. “We hope that the people who come really need [the help].”

HELP, a nonprofit run completely by volunteers, accepts both financial and food donations from individuals and organizations. Money received goes toward ordering largely non-perishable food items. HELP then supplements that stock with donated food items. Most of the food donations the organization receives come from an always-changing list of contributing area churches and synagogues.

Vobe said the groceries a family receives from HELP are intended to last at least three days but can easily last a week or even more. The organization has a system to ensure food is not wasted; items are arranged so those with an upcoming expiration date are given away soonest.

“We never give out expired food,” said Vobe.

Recently, food waste has not been an issue. HELP volunteers report that while the list of families the organization serves is higher than ever, but the pantry shelves are more sparse than usual.

“When I started as director three years ago, we had 10 to 15 appointments [to pick up groceries] a night,” Vobe said with marked concern in her voice. “Now we serve 25 to 30, sometimes even 35, families a night.”

When asked whether stock increased during the holiday season, when people traditionally do their annual charitable giving, Vobe replied, “Actually, we are very low right now. We have had to buy a lot ourselves. People get busy this time of year … and they forget.”

She added that the new center’s grand opening in November created some buzz, which caused a surge in giving. “But it didn’t really last.”

Vobe also said HELP has been actively seeking grants from the city, county and state to help keep the organization running during these hard times.

In addition to providing families with groceries, Gaithersburg HELP tries to provide other services as well. If a client requests, HELP can assist with a co-pay on an essential prescription or even pay an important bill, such as electric or water. Volunteers can also drive a client to a doctors appointment, as long as it is in Montgomery County. Additionally, HELP can provide bus tokens, cab fare and even gas money for clients who have job interviews.

But even HELP could use some help these days, said pantry workers.

“The biggest problem is that, because of how bad the economy has been for so long, people have [long-ago] cut charities from their budget,” said Vobe. “And, sadly, many who used to support us now need our help themselves.”

To learn more about Gaithersburg HELP, call 301.216.2510 or visit

Here to HELP

On Friday, Jan. 4, I did something I haven’t done since I was in parochial school. No, I didn’t braid a rainbow-hued friendship bracelet, or slip a mysterious love note in a boy’s backpack. For the first time since eighth grade, when I used to volunteer every month, I volunteered at a food pantry for the needy.

Even without the main two benefits I gleaned from this experience — which I will divulge in a moment — working at Gaithersburg HELP for an afternoon was an entirely pleasant experience. All the volunteers I met there were kind, helpful and joyful in their work. They weren’t there to “pay the bills.” They were doing this work because they wanted to. They enjoyed helping others, and that gave them great happiness and satisfaction.

The first of the two benefits I experienced when helping to bag grocery orders for families at HELP was the most anticipated. It simply made me feel great to be doing something that directly helped individual people immediately. It is easy to feel disconnected to any positive vibes that come from writing a check to a charity. But I found it impossible to ignore, and blissfully easy to get lost in, the good feelings associated in doing actual work that greatly helped people in need.

The second benefit of volunteering at the HELP food pantry was much less expected. I am a writer, and like many of you who are reading this, most of my work is done using my mind. I went to school so I could use the strength of my intellect to earn wages instead of the strength of my muscles. But I learned that there is something very relaxing and stress-relieving about working with your hands, especially in a methodical and rhythmic way. It is a wonderful escape from the constant tangling of the mind.

I really enjoyed picking out various cans and boxes of food, arranging them neatly in a bag, and then putting the bags on shelves. After a few times it became less and less about the mind and more about movements — a lot like yoga.

At the end of the day, I am happy to report that I came away from the experience feeling good in all respects.

Gaithersburg HELP can use all the volunteers it can get, as can other area soup kitchens and food pantries. So do yourself a favor. Do something for someone else.