Keolahou Church food pantry

Serving up hope with nearly two dozen volunteers

Alohalani Eldredge is the co-chair of Keolahou Hawaiian Congregational Church’s food pantry, which is operated by the church in partnership with the Maui Food Bank and other Kihei churches. She and Janice Cohen oversee the program, which distributes more than a week’s worth of meals to homeless and food-insecure individuals and families in South Maui every Friday morning. The volunteer program, founded in 1994 by Keolahou Church congregant Carolyn Nichols, distributes food to nearly 80 South Maui families every week, often more during the holidays. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Alohalani Eldredge is the co-chair of Keolahou Hawaiian Congregational Church’s food pantry, which is operated by the church in partnership with the Maui Food Bank and other Kihei churches. She and Janice Cohen oversee the program, which distributes more than a week’s worth of meals to homeless and food-insecure individuals and families in South Maui every Friday morning. The volunteer program, founded in 1994 by Keolahou Church congregant Carolyn Nichols, distributes food to nearly 80 South Maui families every week, often more during the holidays. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

For The Maui News

When Alohalani Eldredge flew to Las Vegas for a family vacation a few weeks ago, she didn’t forget to pack her cellphone charger. As she ate brunch at her hotel on a late Friday morning, she couldn’t help but glance at the screen of her fully charged phone every few seconds.

“I knew everything would be fine while I was gone, but I couldn’t stop myself from checking,” she laughed.

Eldredge is the co-chair of Keolahou Hawaiian Congregational Church’s food pantry, which is operated by the church in partnership with the Maui Food Bank and other Kihei churches. Eldredge (who is also the church’s secretary) and fellow co-chair Janice Cohen oversee the program, which distributes more than a week’s worth of meals to homeless and food-insecure individuals and families in South Maui every Friday morning.

Eldredge and Cohen care deeply for the people they serve — neither can take a vacation or sick day without wondering if their clients have enough to eat. Regular clientele come twice a month (three times if a month has five Fridays) to pick up food, and if they miss a day, Eldredge notices.

“If I don’t see someone for a while, I start to worry,” she said.

Founded in 1994 by Keolahou Church congregant Carolyn Nichols, the food pantry began with a handful of clients and a small utility closet full of canned goods. Over the years, the need grew — and so did the program. Today, it distributes food to nearly 80 South Maui families every week, often more during the holidays and summer months.

Every Friday morning, a crew of volunteers sets up tables — arranged in a U-shape — in the Hale Aina meeting room directly behind the church. Food distribution begins at 9 a.m., and as clients arrive with their IDs, proof of South Maui residency and reusable shopping bags, they register at the front door and take a number. Once their number is called, they can browse the shelves of the “protein pantry” (a small room filled with cans of Spam and Vienna sausage, cartons of almond milk and other nonperishables) before moving to the adjacent kitchen, which is stocked with fresh milk, cheese and yogurt.

The clients are then welcomed into the Hale Aina room, where they choose items from six volunteer-manned stations: cereal and juice; canned vegetables and fruits; pasta and rice; fresh produce; baked goods; and miscellaneous (toiletries, chips and candy). And at a seventh station outside, Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Maui representatives hand out pet food, treats and toys.

No one ever leaves empty-handed and Eldredge says there are usually plenty of leftovers. Surplus perishable items are taken to St. Theresa Church for its nightly hot meal service (Keolahou Church and St. Theresa Church also team up to deliver baskets of food and emergency supplies to families in crisis). It’s a well-organized operation, and Eldredge credits its fluidity — as well as the overall success of the program — to the nearly two dozen volunteers who show up every week.

“No one person can do this,” she said. “It takes a team to make it work.”

Regular volunteers like Doc Grady say the experience is a transformative one. Three years ago, he heard about the program from a friend and decided to help out one morning.

“I came to set up chairs and help clean up. After that, I kept coming back,” he said. “I’d seen a lot of food pantry operations on the Mainland, but nothing like this one — it’s top of the line. There’s a lot of aloha here.”

Today, Grady is one of several volunteers who drive to the Maui Food Bank on Thursdays to stock up on items for the following morning.

Eldredge, too, was a volunteer before becoming co-chair in 2015.

“I say to new volunteers: ‘You’re going to love it,’ “ she said. “And they do. It’s such a rewarding experience, especially when you start to see how it can change people’s lives. After a while, it becomes a part of you.”

The food pantry opens its doors every Friday at 9 a.m., rain, wind or shine. In fact, Eldredge says it would take a drastic event to cancel a distribution day. Case in point: A few years ago, she and several others drove to the seaside church on a Friday morning in the midst of a tsunami warning — just to see if anyone needed something to eat.

“Our clients know we are here for them,” she said. “That’s why we do it. We want them to know someone cares . . . and we want to give them hope that it will get better. I look forward to those sparks of hope every week.”

To learn more about the food pantry at Keolahou Hawaiian Congregational Church or to inquire about volunteer or donor opportunities, call Eldredge at 879-4693.

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