HALLOWELL — After 22 years as a school nurse for the Maranacook Area Schools, Vicky Gabrion’s passion for helping those in need led her to become director of the Hallowell Food Pantry during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to her becoming a school nurse, Gabrion had never held a job for as long as 22 years.

“That just shows how fascinating it was,” she said. “There was always something new happening. But at the time, it felt right for me to leave. I’m so used to looking after people, and I’d always said to myself once I retire, I’d volunteer at the food pantry, which I did.”

Vicky Gabrion, left, and Monty Hoskins move boxes of USDA surplus food Thursday into the Hallowell Food Pantry. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

After starting in late January, she said, the opportunity arose within a couple of months to become director.

“I was thrilled,” she said. “I always saw a lot of food insecurity among the students at school, and I always wanted to make a difference. This seemed like an ideal opportunity. I haven’t been disappointed.”

With a laugh, Gabrion said taking over amid the coronavirus pandemic was “interesting.”

“I hadn’t known anything else,” she said. “The former director, Jeanne Langsdorf, a dear friend of mine, had gone from having in-person shopping, and then suddenly they had to scramble when everything shut down and start packing everything into boxes and figure all of that out.

“So, really, I actually had it quite easy. I tweaked a few things to better suit me. But for the most part, the transition had already been made before I started, so I just continued the process and I said, ‘I’ll get this down pat, and we’ll get to in-person shopping,’ which is exactly what happened. So now I have to learn it the other way.”

And the transition from curbside to in-person pickups, for Gabrion, has been “amazing.”

“I would go out to cars with my clipboard, and I got to know people and see some familiar faces,” she said. “But now, having people come into the food pantry, it’s just such a happy occasion. People are comfortable. They know me and the other volunteers, and it feels like a really nice get-together.”

The pantry is now allowing two visitors at a time because it is small and has little ventilation. Gabrion said the city has let the pantry use an adjoining room to increase safety while packing boxes.

“In the actual pantry, which is in the basement of the old fire station,” Gabrion said. “We have all the pantry staples, fridges and freezers. Then, once people have chosen their toiletries, spaghetti and all the basics, they go through into the adjoining room, which has all the bread, fruit, veggies and everything else laid out.”

And while the Hallowell pantry, like many others in the state and country, is going through the often challenging process of reopening, Gabrion said the work has been more fun than she could have anticipated.

Anna Perkins, left, and Vicky Gabrion organizes boxes of USDA surplus food Thursday at the Hallowell Food Pantry. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“You get to know people so well,” she said. “It’s all about the relationships. It’s not easy asking for help, and it’s not easy having to use the food pantry.”

Gabrion said she has made several new relationships while at the pantry, and that most guests are happy and at ease once they arrive.

“I’ve found that I end up talking to a lot of people,” she said. “We end up talking about recipes — ‘How do you cook Swiss chard?’ There’s a lot of back and forth, which I like. It’s not just ‘You’re in need, so let me help you.’ I get so much out of it and I feel like you see people, in a way, at their best.”

In addition to being open from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. every Friday, the pantry has added Friday morning hours — 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. — during which those 65 or older or with mobility issues can browse the pantry.

Allowing for home deliveries, Gabrion said, the pantry serves between 25 to 30 households each week. Some are for families that come back on a weekly basis. Others might only get deliveries once a month.

“It’s very hard to predict,” Gabrion said. “Certainly, when I was making out the boxes, I was thinking there must be a way to nail down how many boxes to make because sometimes I’d make lots of boxes and we’d be unpacking them at the end of the day.

“But sometimes we would almost run out, so you never know. Sometimes, I’d think the weather is really awful and no one will turn out, but then they do. Sometimes, we’re quiet. Other times, people are just lined up. So there is no rhyme or reason.”

One benefit of allowing in-person visits, Gabrion said, is people can choose what they need instead of receiving a box with items they may not need or be able to use.

“Once COVID arrived, everything was changing,” Gabrion said, “and they just rolled with it and have been so grateful. You sort of get to know their likes and dislikes, like if they have food allergies or if they’re vegan.

“Any donations that came in, I could set something aside and think ‘Oh, so and so will like that.’ But since we’ve had in-person shopping back, everybody has been so thrilled to get back inside and choose the foods they like.”

To supply food and materials, the food pantry has between 20 and 25 volunteers working on a rotating basis. Some of the volunteers left when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And while all have not returned, Gabrion said the pantry has received new volunteer applications through its website.

“I think that’s just natural,” Gabrion said. “People are leaving and people are coming, and there’s always great enthusiasm for helping.”

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