What happens in our region when a few compassionate souls with energy become aware of a growing need in the community? They act. And that is why we love Bello Shire.
Nine years ago Kellie Small and a few friends realised there was an increasing number of Bellingen locals struggling to afford regular groceries and decided to do something about it. “It started as a few boxes of local produce and bread being sold at reduced prices in Halpins Lane behind LifeHouse Opportunity Shop in Bellingen,” says Kellie. “We realised that there was a growing divide in this region, with increasing rents and cost of living impacting members of our community, with many struggling to survive week to week. Older members of the community, single parents or those with a disability may have never reached out for help to the neighbourhood centre, but were quietly feeling the pinch.”
From these humble beginnings nine years ago, LifeHouse Pantry is now a not-for-profit entity with numerous volunteers operated by LifeHouse Church Coffs Harbour, with pantries in Woolgoola, Bellingen, Urunga, Toormina and Moree. Kellie has coordinated the initiative since its inception, first as a volunteer and now in a paid role, and has facilitated its growth to meet a growing need. “We had a very small Pantry in Urunga for five years, but I realised we weren’t meeting the increasing requirements of the community. We now operate from a rented space in Cardows Arcade, supported by the Anglican Church and volunteers. This has allowed a four-fold growth.”
The model is simple. LifeHouse Pantry source produce and goods from Foodbank Australia and local farmers, which is then sold at reduced rates to Health Care and Pension Card Holders, unemployed or those experiencing financial stress. The money raised through the sale of goods is then used to buy the produce for the following week’s pantries.
Understandably, local need for this service has grown over the past few months, and will continue to do so, as government assistance is slowly removed and our unemployment rate grows. Kellie is ready for all eventualities and is being fully backed by LifeHouse Church in her quest to ensure no one goes hungry. “We have and will continue to grow,” she says.
Kellie wants to stress that this service isn’t a handout. Every cent spent in the Pantry goes to stocking the shelves the following week. “Your money helps the Pantries to operate and so helps the next person who may find themselves in a difficult situation.”
I must say I was buoyed by the strong sense of community, the friendly, smiling volunteers, the extraordinary array of available stock and the uplifting vibe on my first visit to the Bellingen LifeHouse Pantry. “We have deliberately set up the pantries to feel like a community gathering point, not like a Centrelink office,” say Kellie.
As with all the Pantries, Bellingen is a hub of joyous activity. Much effort has been made to ensure every possible home and food essential is available and then some. Most dietary requirements, food allergies and food sensitivities are catered for and Kellie also manages to source many luxury items. “I want our customers to be able to purchase a present for a loved one or enjoy a treat. We stock beautiful shampoos and conditioners, body lotions and natural, aluminium free deodorants. I’m endeavouring to stock everything possible, from Vitamins to washing powders and even bandaids. We encourage shoppers to do their full weekly shop and therefore, we ensure we can accommodate that.”
Like so many successful initiatives, this is a collaborative effort with other local bodies, modelling a true sharing of resources. LifeHouse Pantry partners with the Bello Youth Hub, providing the Hub with hampers when required. The Pantry also provides Bellingen High School with bread for their breakfast program. In turn, St Vincent’s de Paul provide customers with food vouchers to be used at the Pantry and Bellingen IGA has donated the profits from sales of toilet during the pandemic. The Pantry also partners with Community Care Options, so carers can shop on behalf of and deliver groceries to the most vulnerable in the community.
The lifeblood of this valuable resource is the dedicated group of volunteers. “Nothing is too much effort. Many of our volunteers are retirees, but that doesn’t stop them heaving boxes of donations, stacking shelves often outside normal work hours and always presenting a welcoming face and ear. I couldn’t do this without them,” says Kellie.
The Pantry would like to reach out to the community at this time. Donations of food and essentials would be greatly appreciated to meet the growing demand. Even perishables can be accommodated safely. “If you have any excess produce or decide to spring clean the home pantry, all donations are welcome and can be delivered to the LifeHouse Op Shops any day of the week.” When asked if the Pantry will continue to operate if the Pandemic strikes closer to home, Kellie is adamant. “I will make it happen any way I can.”
This is a true success story, greatly appreciated by so many in our community. The tireless volunteers have stepped up their efforts during the Pandemic, sterilising and stacking shelves before the Pantries open to ensure the safety of both the customers and the older volunteers and serving a growing number of the community. Despite their increased efforts, the welcoming smiles on the faces of the volunteers tells the story. This is community spirit at its best.