SUMMERTON — A steady stream of cars, vans and pickup trucks pulls up at a small house on a sleepy side street in this Clarendon County town on the second and third Thursday of every month.
The vehicles bring a diverse group of large families, single men and women, young parents with children, senior citizens, men in overalls and young women in trendy jeans and T-shirts. All of them come to the house for one reason — to get much-needed food and supplies.
Twice a month, parishioners from Our Lady of Hope Church in Manning and St. Mary Church in Summerton operate a food pantry from a refurbished house next to the small white wooden church, which has served Catholics in Summerton since 1914, according to Father Tom Kingsley, parish administrator.
The food pantry, which regularly serves more than 250 needy families each month from the area, has been operating since 1991, said Fran Pletl, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society at Our Lady of Hope. Pletl retired to Clarendon County from New York, partly in pursuit of sunshine and warm weather.
In 1994 he was asked to participate in the food pantry, and he has been the project’s volunteer coordinator ever since.
“I get a good feeling from doing this for people because it’s necessary,” Pletl said. “It keeps you going when you’re doing something for somebody else.”
Volunteers from St. Mary, Our Lady of Hope and St. Ann in nearby Santee travel to Florence twice a month in a large pickup truck to get loads of food from a regional location of Harvest Hope Food Bank. The food bank is based in Columbia and provides for many pantries sponsored by churches and other groups throughout the Midlands and parts of the Pee Dee.
Pletl said the volunteers bring the food to the house at St. Mary and prepare packages designed to feed families of various sizes. Each package contains staples such as rice, cereal, pasta, peanut butter, canned goods, bread and drinks. Fresh fruit, vegetables and frozen goods are available periodically.
Pletl said that about 60,000 pounds of food is distributed annually to the needy in Summerton.
On days when the pantry is open, other volunteers screen applicants for eligibility for assistance and fill out paperwork. Packages also are delivered to shut-ins who live around the area.
Other needs of area residents are also being addressed. Volunteer nurses offer health and blood pressure screenings. The churches run a clothing closet at the same site.
Volunteers also come from other churches in the Summerton area. Jeanine McBride, a member of Our Lady of Hope, has been a volunteer at the pantry for five years. She is in charge of the volunteers who handle intake, or processing applications for assistance, each month.
“I find this work very rewarding — it’s something I definitely enjoy and something definitely needed in this community,” McBride said during an interview with The Miscellany on Sept. 28.
McBride keeps detailed notes of the number of families who visit the pantry, and said she has seen a definite increase over the years.
During July of 2000, for instance, the pantry served about 150 families a month. Now, she said, the regular figure is 265 families a month. She said the pantry serves a lot of elderly people, many of whom are raising their grandchildren, and an increasing number of large and multi-generational families.
As an example, McBride spoke of a woman she met who, because of a job loss, had to move with her six children into a home shared with her sister and her sister’s children.
The High family, from the nearby town of Eutawville, make the half-hour trip to Summerton twice a month to help out at the pantry.
All four of the High children — Tyler, 17, Tessa, 15, Tanner, 13, and Taya, 9 — take a break from home schooling to help distribute the food packages.
Tammy High, the children’s mother, said the family started coming to Summerton in 2005 because she wanted to find a way for her children to help in the community. They learned about the need for volunteers while attending their church, St. Ann in Santee.
“It’s good just to be able to be helping people out,” said Taya High on a recent Thursday after completing her shift of volunteer work.
Anyone who would like to volunteer at the St. Mary food pantry or make a monetary donation can contact Fran Pletl at (803) 478-2941.