Holly Wheaton does not own a single little black dress or power suit. Those days are long behind her.
More than two decades ago, the Springs native traded in her sleek Chicago wardrobe for flannel shirts, blue jeans and work boots when she moved back home to join the ranks of the Springs Food Pantry that her mother, Betty Reichart, had started in 1992 — a time when feeding over 200 families was unimaginable.
But that is precisely what Ms. Wheaton faces today.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food pantry chairperson — who acts as director — has witnessed a 300-percent increase in demand, which has forced the operation to grow accordingly. It is a feat that Ms. Wheaton has navigated with patience, persistence and grace under fire, her colleagues attest, leading by example at every turn.
“She never loses her cool — never,” fellow food pantry board member Pamela Bicket said. “It’s important to have someone that you can turn to when you feel like, ‘Oh my God, all the eggs arrived broken!’ She never loses her cool and I’ve never, never, never heard her snap at someone, or say something disrespectful or sarcastic.
“I’ve worked at enough volunteer organizations to realize that the tone is set at the top,” she continued. “So Holly establishes the tone of, ‘Even though we’re all volunteers, we have a serious commitment and respect for what we do,’ because Holly has that serious commitment and respect, too.”
Born and raised in Springs, Ms. Wheaton’s sense of reverence for her community has never abated, even during her 12 years spent away from the East End, working a high-power job in the insurance industry. She transferred those business skills to the food pantry when she hopped on board in 1998 — back when the effort was an offshoot of the Springs Community Presbyterian Church’s mission.
“My mom and a few ladies from the church had looked around the congregation and there were some fishermen and farmers that, you could just tell, were struggling,” Ms. Wheaton said. “So they just went door to door and were collecting food, and it just started to grow.”
In the early days, the team of volunteers would meet on Wednesday afternoon, assess their food supply and pack 25 to 30 bags in about two hours, just in time for distribution. But as the numbers started to increase, Ms. Wheaton approached her mother, concerned.
“You can’t rely upon going door to door and get enough food for these people,” she recalled saying. “You have to order food product.”
“I’m not sure how we’re gonna pay for that,” her mother had replied.
And, so, Ms. Wheaton got to work. She sent out the pantry’s first fundraising letter, making an appeal to the local community — which has helped keep the effort afloat ever since.
“In a sense, Holly’s a chip off the old block,” volunteer coordinator and board member Anne McCann said. “Betty is just a remarkable, remarkable human being and has given birth to a remarkable, remarkable human being who picked up the mission and ran with it when her mom couldn’t do it anymore. And that’s a huge testimony to both of them.”
Last year, the pantry — which obtained its own 501(c)3 status in February 2019 — averaged 55 families seeking assistance, or about 195 people. Earlier this month, in a typical week, the pantry fed 214 families, or 826 people.
And the food distribution process that, in the 1990s, took two hours for a handful of people on Wednesday now starts on Monday, at the latest, with no less than 40 volunteers.
“It’s a full-time job,” said Ms. Wheaton, who finds herself at the pantry almost every day. “It’s not a ‘Woe is me, I’m too busy’ thing. It’s like, ‘I can’t wait to get out there to help them.’ It really is a job you don’t get paid for, except for the smiles and the appreciation that people have in their faces. And that’s okay, that’s what I like. I think all of us feel that way, who are at the food pantry. The dedication and camaraderie is just amazing. We all bring different aspects to the pantry and we work really well as a team.”
That level of friendship and cooperation has proved essential while running the food pantry through the COVID-19 crisis and clearing every hurdle that has come along with it, from reverting back to bag packing — after implementing a successful “choice” model, where recipients could select their food products themselves — to managing the sheer volume of traffic, even with help from the police.
“It’s been hectic, in one word,” Ms. Wheaton said. “The logistics alone was something that we look back on now — we were just commenting the other day — like, how did we do it? We went from an average of 55 families and it just skyrocketed. All of a sudden, we were at 150 families in less than a two-week period of time.”
Even with supplemented produce from Share the Harvest Farm, Balsam Farms and Amber Waves Farm, the pantry’s three wholesale distributors couldn’t keep up with the demand, Ms. Wheaton said. Requests for 20 dozen eggs soared to 270 dozen. Orders for peanut butter would unexpectedly be replaced by jelly. If she ordered 36 cases of beans, she was lucky if she’d get two.
When, this past May, musician Jon Bon Jovi set up the JBJ Soul Kitchen Food Bank at The Clubhouse in East Hampton, in an effort to help six food pantries — including the Springs Food Pantry — through the food shortage crisis, it “literally saved us,” Ms. Wheaton said, also giving a nod to the philanthropist’s wife, Dorothea Bongiovi.
“The funds were coming in, I was getting donations — people were being great about donating money — but I couldn’t get food product,” Ms. Wheaton said. “Jon and Dorothea were just wonderful and they interviewed us and did a walkthrough and jumped on, and were giving us food product every week to feed these people. We just had to come up with a place to store it. And we had to pick it up.”
Every week, from May to September, East Hampton-based Ronald Webb Builder would send three employees and their dump truck to The Clubhouse to load up with food and bring it back to the pantry’s headquarters at the Springs Community Presbyterian Church, which had agreed to open up its empty sanctuary for storage, as it was closed for services due to COVID-19.
“I went to session and said, ‘I have a way to keep the pews warm even though nobody’s here,’ and they listened to my plea and they said, ‘Yeah, go ahead,’” Ms. Wheaton said. “So we rolled up the cushions on the pews and we piled food product. That was the only way we could make this all work.”
Today, the food pantry occupies about 95 percent of the church building, with help from a chest freezer on loan from The Maidstone Club in East Hampton and, after JBJ Soul Kitchen Food Bank packed up and left this past fall, a donated refrigeration unit from them — reinforcing the connection that Ms. McCann credits Ms. Wheaton for making and maintaining entirely.
“That was like, wow, what a gift,” Ms. McCann said of the food bank’s involvement. “The fact that she worked with Jon, it changed everything for us. I have to tell you, now, it’s all really working. We go to the pantry with a huge amount of enthusiasm because we’re pulling it off. We’re actually doing this — and it stuns us.”
At age 90, Ms. Wheaton’s mother is no longer involved with the food pantry, but her legacy lives on there through her daughter, who looks on with a bittersweet lump in her throat as each grocery bag lands in the arms of someone in need.
“You know a lot of the families — and my heart breaks. It’s the working poor, the people who are marginal anyway. They’re living paycheck to paycheck and then, all of a sudden, the paycheck’s not there anymore,” she said. “I tell people, ‘Your food budget should not be your concern. You just need to get yourself back on your feet and pay it forward.’ That’s all I ask. And they do. We have volunteers, now, who were recipients of our food pantry, who have come back to help.
“To watch it all unfold is just amazing to me,” she continued. “I’m thankful for the community that we live in. It’s such a great community, just the spirit of everybody, and they want to help. It’s a positive, positive surrounding that I’m in. And that, to me, I’m just so thankful.”
As published in the East Hampton Press