Sharing: Marco volunteer group operates food pantry at Manatee Middle School

Lance Shearer

Man does not live by bread alone, goes the saying. Taking that to heart, “Al’s Pals” adds milk, eggs, chicken, sausage, frozen pizza and whatever other groceries they get their hands on to pass on to those in need.

So, in addition to a daily bread run delivering donated baked goods to families at Manatee Middle School in East Naples, Al’s Pals have created a mobile food pantry taking surplus food items of all descriptions to help augment the budget of hungry and hardworking families.

Erica Gutierrez, 11, and her mom Erica head out with their groceries. A group of Marco Island volunteers conducts a food pantry Friday afternoon at Manatee Middle School.

The “Al” of Al’s Pals is Allyson Richards, who has made a fulltime job of volunteering for a host of worthy causes around Marco Island. She got husband Jim Richards to buy a cargo trailer that she tows behind her Escalade, earning her the nickname “the Cadillac lady” from the people at the farm villages and school parking lots where the food pantry operates.

Friday afternoon, the Al’s Pals trailer, which is a joint project of the Greater Marco Family YMCA and the Family Church Food Pantry, also known as Our Daily Bread, showed up at Manatee Middle School just as the children were being let out for the weekend.

Manatee is a Title 1 school, with over 90 percent of the students economically disadvantaged enough to qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch. Principal Jennifer Bledsoe said that while the free food is always welcome, delivering it at the beginning of the weekend helps even more, as many families depend on the school to provide nourishing meals for their kids during the week.

Al's Pals members Lorraine Corva, from left, Patti Porter, Rick Marcantonio, Tricia Simmler and Allyson Richards. A group of Marco Island volunteers conducts a food pantry Friday afternoon at Manatee Middle School.

“I was very fortunate to have Allyson reach out to me,” said Bledsoe. “She rearranged her schedule to be here when it’s most helpful. They’ve been amazing.”

Bledsoe also expressed her appreciation for the Harry Chapin Food Bank, which alternates with Al’s Pals in operating a food pantry at Manatee. The Al’s Pals operation began over the summer, when summer vacation means no school lunches – or breakfasts, and even supper for those involved in after-school activities – for a period of months.

“Summer’s a time of stress for us,” said Bledsoe, worrying about families who live without “food security,” or in other words not knowing where their family’s next meal will come from.

Friday afternoon, the team of five volunteers moved quickly to set up a table behind the trailer, in a parking place that Manatee vice principal Christina Wennlund stood outside and reserved for them, amid the hubbub of buses, cars, and students heading out for the weekend. The food pantry doesn’t insist on income verification or a lot of paperwork, asking only how many in the family, so they know how many gallons of milk, for instance, to hand out.

Lorraine Corva, Patti Porter, Tricia Simmler and Rick Marcantonio worked to pull foodstuffs from the coolers and shelves in the trailer, and hand them out to the group of people waiting for them. Watching the operation, the personal touch was striking. It seemed like a friend doing a favor for another, as Richards and her helpers greeted each recipient with a smile, often by name, and asked after family members.

“It’s so important for people to have dignity,” said Corva. “Unless they get to know you, they’re afraid,” and hesitant to take assistance, even when it is being offered. “Allyson’s modeled for me how to treat people with dignity.”

Everyone at the site was cheerful and patient, and eager to help out. When a carton of eggs broke, and splattered several eggs on the pavement, a man named Fernando waiting in line jumped in and insisted in cleaning up the mess.

“This is a big help for us,” said Kaylee Orbello, her arms full of milk cartons, long baguettes, frozen meats and pizza. “We have five in my family.”

All three grocery stores on Marco Island donate food for the food pantry, said Richards.

“We couldn’t do it without them,” she said. Any groceries that don’t get snapped up at the school go over to the 6L’s farm village community or other locations, where they are quickly snapped up.

Richards, who also volunteers for the bread run, Senior Lunch, Catholic Council of Women, Marco Island Historical Society, sits on the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and Ad Hoc Hurricane Committee, the Marco Island Center for the Arts and other groups, won a seat on the board of Marco Island Charter Middle School, and served as president of the Marco Y.

She has a magnet on her refrigerator that reads “Stop me before I volunteer again,” but doesn’t appear to see it. She was named the Marco Island Chamber Volunteer of the Year in 2015. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities available, she stressed.