FAIRFIELD — After a two-year campaign that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, the Fairfield Interfaith Food Pantry opened the doors at its new downtown headquarters Thursday.

The opening is a culmination of an effort to give the pantry, which serves residents of Fairfield and Benton, a permanent home instead of sharing space with local churches.

“We’ve waited so long for this,” said Laura Hayward, president of the pantry’s board of directors, in between helping serve clients boxes of food Thursday afternoon.

“This was our dream, that we’d have our own place,” Hayward said.

Volunteers and clients agreed that the new building is leagues away from the pantry’s temporary space at the former parsonage of the First Baptist Church on Newhall Street.

The first floor of the renovated building is the pantry’s base of operations, boasting a comfortable waiting room with attached bathroom and a small office where clients can fill out paperwork and meet with a pastor from one of the seven churches that participate in the program.

The pantry itself has been organized to give clients more choice and variety in what they receive, explained Nancy Marcoux, one of the organization’s co-directors.

In the main area, a horseshoe-shaped counter leads people around shelves and tables full of canned vegetables, bread, vegetables, fruit and meat. The new setup makes the system run more efficiently, but also helps save food in the long run, because clients have a chance to see what items they want and make a selection, Marcoux said.

The new space is also equipped with an eight-by-10 foot cooler, bought with a grant from the Good Shepherd Food Bank, and two new standup freezers provided through Catholic Charities.

Overall, the space is bigger, warmer and more inviting than their temporary digs.

“More people want to be here now,” Marcoux said. At the Baptist church, volunteers were less likely to want to stick around and socialize because space was so cramped, she added.

“Volunteers wouldn’t linger in the old space,” Marcoux said, “but now it’s like a second home.”

Moving into the new space took two years of hard work and generosity from members of the community.

In 2011, the pantry lost its space at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church on High Street, where it had been housed since 1993, when the church was closed by the Diocese of Portland.

Pantry organizers were grateful to get a new space with the Baptist church, but the space was less than ideal.

In 2012, when Kennebec Valley Community Action Program started renovations to turn the former Gerald Hotel into senior residences, it offered the pantry an old storage shed on the property it wasn’t using. The town deeded the old warehouse to the pantry, and Hammond Lumber, the pantry’s next door neighbor, donated property to expand the parking lot.

But even with the generosity, the pantry still had to raise about $200,500 to renovate the space, said Louella Bickford, a board member and chief fundraiser.

For starters, the pantry had to replace the third floor, which had a flat roof, with a peaked roof, Bickford noted, but like any renovation project, costs kept mounting. The entire interior had to be refinished, plumbing had to be installed and a new concrete floor had to be put in to replace the old tar surface.

Moreover, the organization’s name and its connection to churches may have turned some bigger corporate donors away, Bickford said. Aside from a few large single donations, most of the money the pantry raised came from individuals in town or those from out of state with family connections to Fairfield.

Even with the challenges, the organization was able to persevere, and when it was given the chance to move in last month, volunteers jumped, shifting its operation over in only an hour.

“Nothing is ever an issue. We work it out,” Marcoux said.

On its first day open, volunteers hustled to serve the thirty or so families who came in to receive food. The pantry is open two Thursdays a month, and last year served more than 4,300 people. Next month, it plans to change its schedule to open the first and third Thursdays of the month from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

Most clients, on Thursday, said they were pleased with the new pantry.

Anne Robinson, of Benton, was waiting for her 16-year-old son, Cameron, to finish volunteering on Thursday afternoon. Robinson said she has been coming to the pantry for at least the last 10 years.

“It fills a major gap,” especially when she’s feeding teenagers, she said.

With the renovated space and new distribution system, the Fairfield pantry is on par with other resources in the area, Robinson said.

“It’s more or less putting them on the same scale as other food pantries,” she said. “It’s a nice set-up.”

Jeremiah, who lives in Fairfield Center, but didn’t want to give has last name, said he and his mother, Maureen, have been coming to the pantry off and on for the last four years, usually when they need a hand up in tough times.

“It’s a lot better than the old place,” he said, and has the space to provide better efficiency and more organization.

While the first day had its kinks, including adequate parking space, the overall mood was positive, and volunteers were confident the bugs would get worked out.

Marcoux has been involved since the organization started more than 20 years ago and said to see it grow from a small pantry in the church office to a newly renovated building of its own demonstrates its resilience.

“We’re here for life,” she said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire


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