PARIS — The Community Angels Cupboard and Pantry – a family run, grassroots food pantry dedicated to helping locals in need and their furry friends – was created from the most unlikely circumstances.
Roughly two years ago, Barbara Haines of Paris, was in the throws of kidney failure. Doctors at Stephens Memorial Hospital told her daughter, Melinda Haines, and Melinda’s husband, Donald Taylor, to say their goodbyes as Barbara was unconscious and doctors did not think she would make it. She had not been coherent for a week, nor was she eating or going to the bathroom.
“We went out [of the room] for a few minutes and she come right to. … I walked in – she was doing a puzzle and watching TV. She was eating all the bacon that they had left over in the ICU. … She looks at me, she says, ‘You’ve looked like you’ve seen a ghost.’” Melinda remembers, laughing. “She said, ‘I am not going yet. I have God’s work to do.’”
And that’s how the Community Angels Cupboard and Pantry was born.
Melinda – who has some severe food allergies – says their project started out small, with a couple bags of food she had been given, but could not eat. For the first six months, the family did this on their own without soliciting donations from friends, family and Facebook. Melinda estimates they helped about two families per month in the beginning.
“Then we got into couponing and got oodles of stuff free,” she says, adding the family’s Sunday ritual is to go out and grab newspapers and sale fliers to get all the deals they can.
“We got some good donations from our friends,” Barbara adds.
While the trio organizes and stores items for the cupboard and pantry in their Paris home, they often will drop items off to people who don’t have transportation or meet them in public to give them their goods. In addition to finding people in need on Facebook, Melinda gets referrals from case managers and counselors regarding families and individuals who could use their help.
More than food
It not only food the family provides to those in need, but personal care items, household cleaners and pet food.
“Sometimes we have as much as 60 laundry detergents in our closet,” Melinda says about the closet that once housed her mother’s crafts and has now been transformed into storage for their project.
“We had 100 tubes of toothpaste at one time,” Barbara adds.
“All [gotten for] free!” Melinda exclaims.
But as Christmas approached this year, their supplies “had been wiped right out,” Melinda says. So she put a call out to Facebook and they were able to provide 32 families with Christmas dinner, a food box and presents. Every day people made plans to meet her to donate items and friends dropped off donations at the house.
“Some of them donated brand new gifts to give to the kids, too,” Barbara says with a smile.
After the donations kept pouring in, there were roughly 150 shampoos and conditioners in the closet. But now there’s maybe 10 bottles of each.
“If I get down to 20, I start freaking out,” Melinda says, noting they need to restock their supply.
There is also a spot in the garage where donations for fire victims are stored. Before friends or family head to thrift stores with their items they no longer need, they stop by the Haines’ and see if they have items to donate it to those who need help rebuilding their lives.
They’ve helped more than 220 cats and dogs this year alone, Melinda says. This is by either bringing people to Responsible Pet Care to pick up supplies, or using the pet supplies they’ve gathered or had donated. There is a shelf in the garage that is designated for pet food and supplies – not only for dogs and cats, but rabbits and fish, too.
“We’ve had a lot of dog food given to us,” Barbara says.
“A lot of people will donate when their animals pass and do it in honor of them,” Melinda says.
The mother and daughter duo love when they can help people not give up their pets for adoption through food donations.
“We’ve kept them going for a month or two and they’ve got to keep their animals,” Melinda says.
Now they’re in the process of creating check lists for pet needs, including dietary restrictions, to better help people and their pets.
And it wasn’t just the humans who made out this Christmas. The trio collected pet supplies and filled a 4-foot-tall stocking and brought it to Responsible Pet Care. Melinda also teamed up with Kate Allen, who saw a community-wide search effort this past spring to search for her lost dog, Shadow. Unfortunately Shadow was found dead in the woods, but his legacy will live on. The two women began a Christmas pet stocking program in Shadow’s memory.
And times have changed – for the good – for couponing, according to Barbara.
“I used to coupon when I had my kids,” she says. “You [couldn’t] get as much as you can now.”
“If you’re going to do it, you have to really be into to make anything of it,” Melinda says, noting she usually spends 40 hours a week couponing and they will travel as far as Auburn to get deals on items.
When the trio first started couponing so they could help more people and pets, Donald was a little nervous. Melinda says she would mess with him a little and give him a dollar for a half a cart full of items to purchase and he would worry it wouldn’t be enough. But it’s always worked out.
“The more he sees the savings now, he comes running out the store going, ‘Yeehaw!’” Melinda says.
“You pay $20 or $30 and you’re getting stuff that’s almost $80 or $90,” Donald adds.
Barbara says she knows what it’s like to be down and out. Her late husband – Frederick Haines who just passed away last week – was a Vietnam veteran and was sick for many years, living at the Maine Veterans’ Home in Togus.
“I had to go to work. But lots of times it wasn’t enough,” she says, adding she had two children to care for. “I just had to have a little help but I never asked for it. [At] different times people would give me help. And I was so happy so I decided I that I would like to pay it back for them.”
After Barbara’s brush with death, Frederick was happy to learn his family was helping others, Melinda says. And it helped her mom get better.
“It has been kind of neat to watch herself in this process,” Melinda says about Barbara, adding they would get calls from the nursing home informing them Frederick was getting worse. “She would say, ‘We got people to help today. Who are we going to help today?’ She would come out and get cracking.”
One of the things that pleases Barbara the most is helping older people keep their pets because maybe one month they can’t afford food, but they can the next.
“This has been awful rewarding for us,” she says.
Since they began this project a year and a half ago, the trio has helped 720 families, Melinda says. And the plan is to help more.
She has a friend who’s helping work on obtaining a nonprofit status for the Community Angels Cupboard and Pantry. Another friend is helping build shelving to store their goods come spring. And Melinda hopes to set something up on Facebook so people in need can contact her directly.
For the time being, they’ll keep couponing, collecting goods and distributing them to the Oxford Hills’ most in need.