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'Just a little bit of everything': United Way's neighborhood pantry preps for winter

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United Way pantry

A woman who lives nearby drops by to see what new books United Way's neighborhood pantry has in stock.

From food to vacuums, décor, winter clothes and more, United Way's neighborhood pantry at 75 E. Lyndale Avenue offers a variety of free items for anyone who needs them. 

“We just decided we have a nice location because people walk by here all the time,” said executive director of United Way Emily McVey. “A lot of people don’t know (the pantry) is there until they know it is there because it's kind of tucked up away, but it’s a nice spot. Sometimes we have people come up and sit to get out of the rain and have a snack.”

United Way Worldwide asks all the United Way organizations around the country to do a Day of Caring, a day for service projects, each year. Around two years ago during the pandemic, United Way partnered with the Neighborhood Pantry Project to set up its own neighborhood pantry for its Day of Caring.

The Neighborhood Pantry Project is a local donation-based nonprofit that operates a network of free community pantries around Helena. It has four other pantries separate from United Way’s pantry at 1526 Cleveland St., 12 E. Lawrence St., 44 N. Last Chance Gulch and 122 N. Rodney St.

“We have people that come by and drop things in the pantry after hours, and we’ll go out there to fill it up one day, and I’m like ‘Oh, there’s already stuff out here,’” said McVey.

Ever since McVey posted about United Way's food pantry on Nov. 2 in the Facebook group Helena Classifieds that has almost 40,000 members, she said she sees someone new using the pantry along with regulars every day.

“As people have known about it, we’ve seen a general increase, especially the last couple of weeks since I put that Facebook post up -- all of a sudden we’ve had a constant flow of people,” stated McVey.

The pantry is always looking for food donations that don’t need to be cooked like canned soup or granola bars. It gets bread from the Salvation Army twice a week, so it's always looking for things that pair well with bread -- peanut butter or tuna for example.

“We’ve been putting out the emergency food packs from Helena Food Share. Those have been really popular because they come with a protein and a water,” said McVey.

In addition to food, the pantry has toiletries available like deodorant, toothpaste, etc. In the winter, blankets, hats, coats and gloves can be found at the pantry for people to use. It also acts as a mini-library with books and puzzles.

“We go through a lot of books and puzzles. People are always bringing puzzles out there and leaving them, but they go away, and new ones come,” said McVey. “ ... I have been shocked at what goes in that pantry. Sometimes we’ll put stuff out there where I’m like ‘I don’t know, maybe somebody needs it.’ Then the next day that thing is gone. It’s been everything from a 1970s vacuum cleaner to office supplies to bathroom décor, just a little bit of everything.”

This pantry is stocked by United Way regularly, but anyone can donate to it. It’s a take-what-you-need and give-what-you-can sort of deal. The pantry is open for donations 24/7.

“Especially with winter being here now and people walking by, just (donate) things that are handy like something warm, something easy to eat, something quick to grab that’s not going to freeze with it being so cold soon,” said Melani McBride, community partnership coordinator at United Way who oversees the pantry. “Anything easily accessible for people, gloves, snow boots, hand warmers, emergency blankets, that would be amazing right now.”

Megan Michelotti can be reached at megan.michelotti@helenair.com.

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