White Bear food shelf director: Parents modeled how to feed hungry

| Terry Griep for The Catholic Spirit | June 6, 2012 | 0 Comments

Ann Searles, a member of St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi, is called to serve those in need of food as executive director of the White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf. Dianne Towalski / The Catholic Spirit

Serving others comes naturally to Ann Searles. She was blessed with parents and a grandfather who taught her that the more one gives, the more that person will receive.

Searles watched her grandfather, Joe Prifrel, buy fruit baskets, turkeys and hams for those who did not have anything to eat. As a state legislator for 30 years, he served his constituents in the Rice Street area in St. Paul by both representing them and continually offering a helping hand, she said.

The tradition continued with her parents. Searles remembers sitting at the family Christmas Eve dinner table with people she did not know. She said she learned years later that these “guests” either did not have money to buy food or did not have a place to go for the holiday.

As a married mother with three daughters, Searles is helping to provide food for those who don’t have any. She became the director of the White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf last September, a part-time position of 27 hours per week.

“As an adult, I am guided by the same foundational principles I learned from my parents, grandfather, and teachers in Catholic schools, to be ‘Christ like’ towards others, especially those less fortunate,” she said. “On a daily basis, I truly strive to ‘reflect the heart of Jesus’ and ask God for the grace to achieve this goal with everyone I meet, especially those in need. Daily prayer, meditation, and attending Mass helps me to achieve this goal.”

Positive change

Searles, who has a master’s degree from the Carlson School of Business, has used her business expertise to implement changes that have enabled the food shelf to serve more families more efficiently.

The food shelf functions as an emergency service, which means it serves families who have an immediate, dire need for food. The food shelf is set up so people call in the morning and receive their food that afternoon.

Searles instituted a new phone and computer system, so the number of families served daily increased from 13 to 18. Searles said 45 percent of the clients come for help because they have lost their jobs.

Many of the volunteers, who are senior citizens, were wary of the new system, but now love it because the software is easy to use and saves time and cramped fingers, she said. Family information stored in the computer makes it easier for volunteers to fill requests from a printout. A 70-year-old receptionist who had never used a computer now wants to get her own, Searles said.

Her excitement increased when she applied for her first-ever grant, and received it. The  grant from United Way enabled the food shelf to purchase refrigeration. Now, in addition to staples, clients receive fresh milk, eggs and yogurt. Since clients receive food for a week for each registered family member, and can apply once a month, the refrigerated items are a welcome addition, she said.

Searles newest project is a garden. There was available land in back of the food shelf, but it needed to be cleared and prepared for planting. Other volunteers were skeptical — Searles is not a gardener.

But she found a volunteer couple who used to farm, and the garden is flourishing, and she expects it to yield lots of fresh produce this summer.

“Right now we’re giving a handout. We’re looking at ways to give a hand up,” she said. She envisions providing counseling services to help clients “get back on track” and become self sufficient.

The food shelf serves families living in the White Bear Lake school district. Those needing food must provide a picture I.D. and proof of residence in the district, plus some proof of the number of family members residing in the household. It also serves people who are homeless or in transition, and have children attending a school in the district. Volunteers record the information, then other volunteers fill sacks and have them waiting in shopping carts for a specific pick-up time in the afternoon.

Meeting the needs

Searles said 22,000 pounds of food is distributed each month. The food shelf serves 785 individuals a month, a 7 percent increase since the first of the year. The greatest increase is in the senior population, she said.

“These people have worked hard all their lives. They have small pensions, yet they can’t afford the rising cost of food today,” she said. Since they need help on an on-going basis, Searles said a food support specialist works with seniors, helping them sign up for federal assistance, so they will need help only on an emergency basis.

The food shelf is staffed by three part-time staff and more than 70 volunteers. Eighty percent of its food comes from donations; the rest is purchased through Second Harvest or the Emergency Food Network. Catholic churches are very generous, Searles said, but so are other White Bear Lake churches. Kowalski’s, Festival and Cub Foods in White Bear Lake also make generous contributions, she said.

“I’m so fortunate that I’ve been able to use the gifts God gave me to minister to those in need,” Searles said. She is grateful, too, to her husband, Mike, and her three daughters, who all attend St. Jude of the Lake in Mahtomedi.

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Category: Vocations