“How would you feel if you had to rely on a food bank at some point?”
That’s the question Pat Szollosy asks volunteers to consider as they serve the less fortunate through the Mary’s Helpers Food Pantry and Clothing Store at Prince of Peace Parish in Steelton.
“Everybody has a need for help at some point in their life,” said Szollosy, the director of the ministry, known in the Steelton area for its dedication to helping those who are experiencing food insecurity.
Mary’s Helpers began in 2008 as an outreach where people could receive food, clothing, preventative healthcare and nutritional information. The ministry was established under the supervision of Sister Sue Ann Steves, IHM, and over the years has established relationships with health care organizations and the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.
Today, the ministry is dedicated to providing weekly food distribution – as well as clothing, as requested – serving more than 200 families on their registry.
“Customers are allowed to come twice a month. If they are in dire need, I’ll let them come a third time, because I know most of them and I know they desperately need food,” said Szollosy.
She greets clients at the front door of the former St. Mary’s School building, adjacent to the parish parking lot. Some arrive on foot with grocery carts; most drive up in their vehicles.
Prior to the pandemic, clients were permitted to enter the building and peruse the shelves and racks to select their items – including canned goods, crackers, cereal, coffee, cooking oil, toiletries, fresh vegetables, milk, butter, eggs and chicken.
Szollosy and a team of volunteers select the items and pack the boxes these days, due to continued health concerns surrounding the pandemic. Other boxes are provided by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. Clients can still make selections based on personal preference and need, as the boxes are packed and distributed with loving care and a mother’s touch.
“I give them, in each box, what I would do for my family,” said Szollosy, 81, who raised a family of ten children.
The years of experience also go a long way in establishing relationships with recipients.
“I know many of them by their first names. They like to talk, so you do get to know them and their situations,” Szollosy said.
Matthew 25 Grant Recipient
Mary’s Helpers is one of 26 local ministries to benefit from last year’s Matthew 25 Collection, an annual undertaking of the Diocese of Harrisburg to help parish-sponsored programs that provide food, clothing and shelter to people in need.
This year’s collection is set for November 21. Monies contributed by parishioners are directed into grants for area ministries. Some of these organizations alleviate the burden of food insecurity. Others ensure a safe haven for moms and children and provide shelter for those who are homeless. Some work to provide less-fortunate children with warm clothing.
All funds contributed to the Matthew 25 Collection benefit local needs. Seventy-five percent of the monies are distributed to programs within the Diocese. Twenty-five percent of the monies are returned to parishes for their use in assisting others.
Mary’s Helpers received a $10,000 grant earlier this year from the collection, enabling the ministry to continue serving those who come to its door every Tuesday morning.
“I don’t know what we would do without that large of a sum of money, to handle as many customers as we have,” Szollosy said.
The grant money goes directly toward the purchase of food for the weekly distribution.
Scott Tezak, a volunteer at Mary’s Helpers, said the ministry is a lifeline for the local community.
He knows first-hand. He was a recipient at the food pantry five years ago.
“I had run into some hard times. I got hit by a tractor trailer going from one job site to another, and then I found out I had cancer. I went from making decent money to making nothing,” Tezak said. “[Mary’s Helpers] helped me out with food.”
“It took me a little while to eat my pride and come here for help, so it was about two or three years after my accident that I started coming here,” he said.
Eventually, he started volunteering at the ministry. “It’s a way to give back for what they gave me,” Tezak said. “There are times that we get a lot of people here, and there are definitely people who need the help.”
The Matthew 25 Collection provides an opportunity to recognize and serve Jesus in others, and to support critical programs like Mary’s Helpers.
“We wouldn’t be anywhere without the Matthew 25 grant,” Szollosy said. “We certainly wouldn’t be able to give as much food as we do, and we would probably fold.”
“I thank the donors every day that we’re open,” she said of those who contribute to the collection. “Without them, I don’t know what we’d do…. The customers are so grateful for what they’re getting, and they’re thankful every week.”
Learn more about the Matthew 25 Collection and make your gift at www.hbgdiocese.org/giving/matthew25.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness