CHEYENNE – A small food pantry that started in the basement of St. Joseph Catholic Church almost two decades ago is now feeding hundreds of families for Thanksgiving.

St. Joseph’s Food Pantry, currently located on Van Lennen Avenue, distributed more than 500 meals Monday to local community members in the spirit of the holiday. Volunteers put together boxes that included every ingredient needed for a feast, from the gravy to a pumpkin pie.

“We wanted people to have a really good Thanksgiving, especially during this difficult time with COVID and all,” said volunteer Pat Gallizizi. “It’s just wonderful to provide a little bit.”

Volunteers have helped with a similar purpose for the past 15 years. Many hands are needed to pack boxes, lift heavy turkeys, direct traffic, carry groceries to put in cars and give pats on the back when the day is done.

And on Monday, more than 70 residents from Laramie County mobilized to do just that. Some were veteran volunteers who had never missed a Thanksgiving meal distribution, and others walked into the food pantry for the first time to lend a hand.

Jonathan Nieves-Luiggi was outside in the Wyoming wind directing cars toward the pick-up line, and he said he just wanted to do something different this year. He saw an opportunity to make people feel less lonely on the holiday, and to give them the opportunity to share a meal with their families, even if they didn’t have the resources before.

Longtime friends Otilia Simentl and Carmen Villarreal have been participating in the Thanksgiving event since it started. Although they are both nearly 80 years old, they still do what they can to give back, such as serving volunteers hot chocolate and keeping the front table in order. Even when it’s not Thanksgiving, you can find the two of them at the food pantry, laughing together and supporting those in need.

“The way it is today, everybody needs help,” said Villarreal. “We show our love by volunteering at the pantry.”

The director of the food pantry, Eva Estorga, has shared a similar perspective for the nearly two decades that she has run the facility. She has always been drawn to this kind of ministry. 

“Going to work for St. Joseph’s really was a calling,” she said, “and I didn’t realize until I was there.”

She started the pantry in the basement of her parish, and moved six years ago to the new warehouse after receiving funding from St. Joseph Catholic Church and donations. It gave her the opportunity to assist the residents of Laramie County in new ways and have a much larger footprint.

The pantry serves hundreds of individuals a week, and prepares 2,000 bags of food a month. Estorga said although she organizes the process, it’s the community that makes it happen. She considers it a blessing.

“The community is so giving,” she said. “It keeps all this food going out. We buy a lot, but we get a lot of community funds.”

But gathering the materials to give 500 meals to those in need over the course of just a few hours required an even greater effort. Months of planning went into making sure there were multiples of each item, enough volunteers to put together the boxes in the morning and an organized, steady line to keep distribution on schedule.

The pandemic and supply chain issues also added another level of complication, simply because the price of food has gone up and the availability of items has gone down. Private and corporate monetary donations were the only way it was possible to have enough food.

One of the lead volunteers, Denise Hawkins, said they wanted to make sure each family had an entire Thanksgiving dinner. She explained how sometimes the ingredients necessary to cook, such as butter and oil, are forgotten when donations are made. The food pantry didn’t let that happen.

“Marshmallows on top of the yams,” said fellow lead volunteer Kathy Cunningham. “I mean, it’s all there.”

Cunningham said seeing how appreciative people are to make the meal themselves and host their families is what keeps her coming back. She also said she doesn’t know if residents in Laramie County realize how many people there are in the community who lack support.

In order to get a Thanksgiving box, individuals had to pre-register throughout the month of October. There were around 500 spots available, but the director said more people signed up than there were resources available.

“I think there were more people that needed a box,” Estorga said. “It seems to me, because we have a waiting list that we had to start. And we’ll be able to serve some, but, of course, not everybody.”

After finishing up the distribution event, the pantry will be closed for the rest of the week to celebrate the holiday, but will reopen Monday for regular grocery services. No financial contribution or volunteer work is necessary to receive food.

“It could be any of us in need,” Hawkins said.

Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s education reporter. She can be reached by email at jhall@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.

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