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Baby pantry ministry warms kids, families


By Chris Grosser

MANCELONA — On a cold, wet morning after the season’s first snowfall, a crush of parents filed into the basement of St. Anthony’s Church in Mancelona to shop for new winter outerwear for their children.

By day’s end, 151 parents had selected 262 jackets, 232 pairs of snowpants and 216 pairs of boots, all free for the taking from the Antrim County Baby Pantry.

Newcomers might not have imagined the piles of colorful jackets and snowsuits — tags still on — or the banquet tables lined with snow boots.

It’s also possible they hadn’t expected the volunteers responsible for the annual winter wear distribution to be as warm as the clothing they offered, but it took only moments to discover that was the case.

“They’re doing a Christian work on Catholic grounds,” said the Rev. R. Dale Magoon, Pastor of St. Anthony’s, home to the pantry since its 2001 opening. “What makes it work is that all these people are grandmothers who bring the unspoken support as only a grandmother can do.”

While the women of St. Anthony’s and St. Luke’s in Bellaire organize distributions on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, respectively, the pantry draws volunteers and benefactors from multiple communities, churches, civic groups and agencies. Last year its 70 volunteers contributed more than 5,000 hours.

“We have lots of friends who care about us, lots of churches and fundraisers,” said board member Cathy Kestner of St. Luke’s. From golf outings and Sunday collections, to grant writing and advance notice of clearance sales, the effort to serve is a united one.

“We make sure that 100 percent of what comes in is spent on the kids,” said board member and Alba resident Mary Williams, a St. Anthony’s parishioner. Not one person is paid for their work.

In 2012, donations provided 54,840 diapers, 5,266 jars of baby food, 247 boxes of cereal, 65 new cribs and 33 new car seats as well as new winter wear, hygiene products and an assortment of gently used clothing. The pantry served 318 families with 537 children ages 0- 5. Most were from Antrim and Kalkaska counties where about 30 percent of children 0-17 are living in poverty, according to US Census data.

Distributions are intended to be supplemental, said Williams. Forty more diapers a month makes a difference to a family budget.

“The Baby Pantry is my passion,” Williams said. “I was a teenage mom. I know how important this support is to these girls.”

St. Luke’s volunteer Barbara Bruce agrees. Her daughter was 15 when she gave birth to Bruce’s first grandson 30 years ago. “There was very little help back then,” said the Central Lake woman who has been with the effort since its inception. “We show we were all moms once. Sometimes we can offer a suggestion.” The pantry offers resource materials, too.

Pantry visitors aren’t only teenagers or single parents. “We’re seeing the new poor,” said Kestner. “It’s not easy for them to be at our pantry. They never thought they’d be here.”

“I get great satisfaction knowing mothers walk away being able to take better care of their children,” said pantry treasurer Jo Ann Kotwick from St. Luke’s.

With an emphasis on safe sleep, and thanks to some grants, expectant mothers in their eighth month receive a new crib, mattress, pad, sheets and layette.

“If it wasn’t for them, some moms wouldn’t make it,” commented one pregnant mother whose smiling 4-year-old clutched the bag containing her new purple and pink princess jacket. Appreciative of the efforts of “these wonderful people,” the Kalkaska woman often stops by the church to pick up and launder donations for the pantry. It’s her way of giving back.

“We give back when we can,” said another shopper who’d returned last year’s coats as she picked out new winter ensembles for her twin 4-year-olds. “I think it’s a really good church.”

“They’re friendly, more loving, helpful,” said a mother of four who has used other services. She and her husband work part-time, and the gift of new coats stretches their budget.

“You treated me with respect,” is a recurring comment from shoppers, said Kestner, and gratitude is commonplace. One mom asked to write a thank-you to the Elk Rapids quilters for her new baby quilt.

The pantry has no income guidelines. Families register with their children’s birthdates before shopping the basement, which is set up as a store with bins of diapers, new underwear and socks, and racks of clothing organized by size and gender. If volunteers wouldn’t put an outfit on their own child, they don’t offer it to shoppers, said Williams. Nothing, however, is wasted. Overstock is sent to a mission in Kentucky, and stained items are donated to Goodwill for rags.

Do volunteers and supporters of the Antrim County Baby Pantry doing God’s work?

“Definitely,” said Kestner.

How to Help

Make blankets, quilts (Bellaire High School Student Council donates 100 youth-size fleece blankets a year); donate diapers; donate new or gently used clothing (especially needed are boys sizes 4-6); show up on distribution day to help; or write a check to the Antrim County Baby Pantry, c/o Jo Ann Kotwick, 2025 N. Intermediate Lake Road, Central Lake, MI 49622.

For more information, call Kestner at 231-377-7885.

The pantry is open 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m. the second and fourth Thursdays of the month (the second Thursday only in November and December) at St. Anthony’s, 209 N. Jefferson, Mancelona.

— Chris Grosser is a former newspaper editor and writer based in Gaylord where she is a member of St. Mary Cathedral Parish. You can reach her at

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