With higher-than-average inflation rates putting many individuals and families into budgetary corners, sometimes the best way to help is to start small. Many Rhode Island nonprofits are doing just that by focusing resources around small communities of neighbors, and although the need has always been great, over the last few years it’s become greater, with lengthy waitlists for help growing. With the holiday season upon us, those with the ability to give back can look to a few worthy causes that do a lot with a little – and despite difficulties of their own, are hoping to make positive impacts in their neighborhoods.
In his depth of experience working in food pantries, Donver Gardiner realized the need for nutrition was greater than many of these organizations were able to meet. With this in mind, in January 2023, he and six colleagues opened Your Neighborhood Food Pantry on Branch Avenue to serve Providence’s North End. “There is another food pantry in this neighborhood,” explains Gardiner, who serves as operations director. “It’s on the bus line, so people can access it, but it’s only open one day a week. Your Neighborhood Food Pantry is on the bus line, and it’s one of the few food pantries in Rhode Island that’s open three days a week.”
Your Neighborhood Food Pantry also shares a block with the Boys and Girls Club and The San Miguel School. “We’ve reached out to both places to see how we can support their kids,” Gardiner says. “We’re trying to talk to different organizations in the neighborhood to let them know we’re here to help them.”
The pantry is a member agency of the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which stocks the majority of their shelf space, but they also rely in part on Hope’s Harvest RI to fill the facility with fresh produce. “Over the last six or seven years, I’ve seen the need increase,” says Gardiner. “Every time I open the doors, I see new people who have never visited a food pantry before. Just yesterday, there were 18 new faces.” He attributes this to the rising cost of food and stagnant wages. “People just aren’t making enough money.”
Your Neighborhood Food Pantry gratefully accepts food donations from the community, but cash donations literally help keep the lights on. “We have to keep paying our rent and bills so we can be here for the people who need us,” Gardiner says.
For many, just staying in one spot can be a challenge, and it’s a struggle that Susan Jaquith, board president of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, is intimately familiar with. Her nonprofit was established in 2012 with the goal of reducing homelessness in South County by repairing homes free of charge. “We started out as a church organization helping people with home repairs two weekends a year, but we quickly realized that wasn’t enough,” says Jaquith. When she retired, she used her new-found free time to help expand the organization as a way to give back to the community.
“Our mission is to keep structures livable and safe so that people can remain in their homes,” she says, describing everything from roof replacement projects and handrail installations to plumbing and electrical repairs. “We’re currently installing a furnace for someone who has been without heat and hot water since July,” Jaquith says. The organization sometimes also sets up temporary structures, like a wheelchair ramp, so that a homeowner can be discharged from the hospital. “When they’re done with the ramp, we’ll take it back and store it for reuse,” she says.
Jaquith acknowledges that her organization has a waiting list. “We do as much as we can with what we have, but while we work on four or five projects at a time, we often have a backlog of 12.” This summer’s torrential rains necessitated a lot of roof repair work for the group.
While cash donations certainly help Neighbors Helping Neighbors fulfill its mission, so do like-minded partners. “Much of the work we do requires a licensed, insured contractor,” she says. “We find that when these contractors meet the homeowners, they develop a real heart for the work and often donate a job a year or give us a break on labor.” Although their volunteers can paint a wall after a patch job, Jaquith says she would love to have a general handyman or carpenter on her list of volunteers who can take on the small jobs.
Small jobs, like changing a lightbulb, are outside of the scope of Neighbors Helping Neighbors’ work, but that’s where The Village Common of RI comes in. With a mission of helping people age in place, the organization has “villages” in Barrington, Burrillville, Edgewood, Glocester, Providence, and Westerly, but beyond helping older adults stay in their homes rather than move into a care facility, volunteers strive to reintegrate older adults into their own communities.
“There’s such a negative spin put on aging,” says executive director Caroline Gangji. “Instead, I think a community should see examples of healthy aging.” The Village Common is driven by 275 volunteers organized into six villages with six more in development, including one dedicated to Spanish speakers and another dedicated to LGBTQ+ adults. Volunteers, who often join the organization after hearing about it through word of mouth, do things like drive older adults to appointments, take them grocery shopping, or bring their garbage cans to the curb. “Our volunteers do whatever is needed. They are an important lifeline for people,” says Gangji, “and they’re the gems of our society.”
Many of the people they support are older women living alone without family nearby or with family busy working and taking care of children. “A lot of what we do is mitigate isolation and loneliness,” says Gangji. Volunteers might organize a potluck, book club, or walking group. They sometimes organize virtual karaoke nights or film discussions. “Sometimes simply receiving an invitation reminds them they’re part of a community,” she continues. “For these older adults, our work can be life changing.”
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