NIAGARA FALLS – Words of welcome and caring are the first things to greet you when you meet Sister Beth Brosmer, executive director of the Heart, Love and Soul food pantry and dining room.
But Brosmer also appears to always have a ready smile, not an easy thing when dealing with some of the poorest of the poor in the Niagara Falls area.
Brosmer said she has had other jobs in her ministry, but adds, “This is where I want to be.”
Brosmer, 67, a native of Columbus, Ohio, has been a member of the Sisters of St. Francis at Stella Niagara for the past 50 years and has been executive director for the pantry for the past five years.
She said the site on Ontario Avenue, a former Salvation Army location, was opened in 2004, but the pantry has been in Niagara Falls for 32 years. It started as a food pantry offered by members of Sacred Heart parish, who noticed that there were people in need, and has grown into one of the largest food pantries in Niagara County, serving individuals and families from Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario. But it predominately serves those in the north end of the city, where there is greatest need.
The site also offers a dining room serving breakfast daily to 45 to 50 people and lunch to another 160 people.
“We have more people at the end of the month because that’s when people start running out of money for food,” Brosmer said. “They really look to Heart and Soul to fill in the gap for them.”
She said Heart and Soul’s mission is to “feed those in need and to provide opportunities for their quality of life and opportunities for networking and resources that would help them.”
And she said the need has been growing with more new people showing up for help for the first time.
The food pantry serves about 375 households per month, providing bags of nutritious food for people to prepare in their homes. It also provides a social worker, nutrition classes, a staff nurse and health clinics, addiction services and even a volunteer who comes in regularly to wash clients’ hair.
How did the food pantry get started?
It started in 1982. It was a result of a group of people in Sacred Heart parish who came together to pray, and they began to notice that there were people in their parish that were in need. So in responding to that need, they began to provide food, and since then it has grown into what it is today. It’s always been in Niagara Falls. It was housed on Pierce Avenue, and then it moved to few different homes before it came here. This is our permanent home, and it’s just a wonderful location.
You said it is also a dining room.
During the weekdays we serve breakfast from 8 to 9 and lunch from 11:30 to 12:30.
Has the need for service been growing?
Yes. Not by huge leaps and bounds, but yes. We see more people coming in that kind of look around because they haven’t been in a place like this, but they find themselves in need and eventually get to us. We help them with the meals that we serve, as well as emergency groceries from our pantry. Heart and Soul is also open the last two weekends of the month, because again, that’s when people run out of food dollars. So we are able to provide them with lunch through the generosity of four different church groups that volunteer to prepare and serve.
Do you have a staff here on most days?
Yes, but we couldn’t make it without our volunteers. Niagara University is a major partner. One of their artists does our newsletter. The university provides skills, guidance, technology we don’t have. They put together our website. The advancement office at Niagara has guided us through the implementation of a database for donors.
When did you come here?
I here came in January 2010, so I am in my fifth year.
Where did you work before Heart and Soul?
I came from working for the Sisters of St. Francis of Stella Niagara in Lewiston, and I was the director of development there. So it was my job to raise funds for the care of our ill and elderly sisters and for our mission and ministries. I did that for 11 years. Before that I worked for St. Anne’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where I was there for about 11 or 12 years and worked with volunteers and missions, where it was my job to make sure that the hospital community realized it was in the ministry of health care, not just the industry.
Did you choose to come?
Years and years ago we were told what assignment we would have, but for most of my religious life, I have found a job and have then taken the opportunity of the job to our province to see if they would approve, if it is in line with our mission to serve.
Is this a stepping stone or is this somewhere you’d like to stay?
At Heart and Soul I feel as if I’ve come home. I intend to work as long as I am physically able to, emotionally, whatever happens in the aging process, but I love it. I love the environment. I love the people. The people that come to Heart and Soul call to me to be the best person I can, and they also point out when I am not the best person I can be, and both of those are blessings. To find the best of yourself and the worst of yourself so you can learn.
Do you feel like you make a difference?
I know we make a difference in a very basic human needs level for our guests. Our guests are the community. I also believe that because Heart and Soul is able to provide the social worker and nurse and such a dedicated staff that, beyond food, we really add quality to the community.
What kind of population do you serve?
It’s not an elderly population. I would say 50 percent are mentally ill, and another 20 percent have some type of mental disability. When you put that together, you have a fragile population for whom stability is often elusive. Maintaining your apartment, using your money to pay your rent first, pay your utilities, buy your food. If they are unable to do that, it causes a great deal of trouble. From not having food to being evicted because you did not pay your rent because you used it for something else.
Do you give them more help here, other than just providing food?
Yes. It’s grown from the initial thing of providing food. Now we have a social worker and a parish nurse. Our social worker deals from everything from helping you secure your identification to securing housing or directing them to the right resources. And it’s not always a simple system so, to me, guidance through the system is one of the great services Heart and Soul can provide to the guests that come here. Our nurse is provided to Heart and Soul from Mount St. Mary’s Hospital. She will do everything from take your blood pressure to if you need a medication and can’t afford the co-pay, we work with Community Medical Pharmacy to help you get that.
Would you like to do more here?
Heart and Soul is a pretty big operator in food, but I think there are other needs that are not addressed. Out of the Coalition for the Homeless is a group called the DePaul Task Force. The DePaul Task Force has made a proposal to DePaul USA to ask for them to support a day center (for adults) in Niagara Falls. Not a place of food, but a place with a case manager that would put you on a track to move forward. Like getting your housing stabilized. It would be a filter to get services. We have many services in Niagara County, but for the individual to use them is pretty daunting. This place would one day have Consumer Credit Counseling there, another day vet services, maybe one day somebody there to talk about mental health counseling, job preparation, GED, preparing your résumé. All of those types of services. Things like having a bank of voicemail boxes if you don’t have a phone to receive a message from a potential employer or a physician. You could come in and bring your laundry and volunteers would do your laundry while you are working on these other things you need to get yourself going.
How is Heart and Soul – the food pantry and dining room – funded?
One-third of our funding comes from the Department of Health New York State Nutrition Assistance Program, another third comes through various grant applications. Part of my responsibility is to seek those out. We all work on this. Another third comes from private donors and some major donors.
The Heart, Love and Soul will hold its annual recognition dinner, its major fundraiser, at 5:30 p.m. April 2 at its dining room, 939 Ontario St. Seat reservations are $50 per person or $400 for tables of eight or $500 for tables of 10. There will be a 50/50 raffle and a live auction with Sheriff James R. Voutour as auctioneer. Former Niagara University President Rev. Joseph L. Levesque will be honored with the Spirit of Heart Love and Soul Award. RSVP by March 28. Information available online at www.heartloveandsoul.org. email: firstname.lastname@example.org