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As Pantry Volunteers, Mother and Daughter Find Human Connection

Kevin Willette poses with volunteer Meaghan O’Brien and jars of spaghetti sauce Photo by Meg McIntrye/Lowell Sun
Kevin Willette, chairman of the Dracut Food Pantry board of directors, poses with volunteer Meaghan O’Brien.

12/18/2019
Lowell Sun
By Meg McIntyre

DRACUT — In many families, weekends are reserved for time together. It’s certainly true for Dracut residents Karen and Meaghan O’Brien — but the pair takes a slightly unique approach to their Saturdays.

Once a month, the mother and daughter spend the day volunteering at the Dracut Food Pantry, manning carriages to guide clients through the shelves and make sure they have everything they need.

Meaghan, a junior studying business administration at UMass Lowell, first became involved with the pantry about two years ago after taking a Business 101 course at the university with Kevin Willett, chairman of the organization’s board. She’d been working at the pantry a few months when she found out the organization needed more volunteers, so she convinced her mom to join as well.

“I think it’s a very humbling experience, because you get to — you hear some of the stories, and it makes you grateful for what you have and makes you want to give more and help out more for other people,” Karen said.

The mother and daughter agreed that what they enjoy most about volunteering at the pantry is the opportunity to get to know the people it serves. As clients return from month to month, the pair have the chance to form relationships with them and learn about their lives, they said.

“They’ll tell you that they’re going on a trip or they’re going to try some recipe, and then they come back and say it failed miserably or it was great,” Meaghan said, laughing.

The family is not new to volunteering. When Meaghan was in high school, she volunteered through Leo Club, a youth branch of the Lions Club, and also worked to raise money for Boston Children’s Hospital and the Joseph Middlemiss Big Heart Foundation.

She’s been a patient at the Children’s Hospital since she was little, when she was diagnosed with a rare connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danos Syndrome, which causes other health issues such as gastroparesis, dysautonomia, adrenal insufficiency and hypothyroidism.

She said her experiences with these conditions have helped motivate her desire to volunteer.

“I think that even before I was diagnosed I always loved helping people from a very young age,” she said. “I think that the experience of losing your health makes you grateful for the things you have and makes you realize that when you’re well enough to improve the life of another, you should take the opportunity to do so.”

Karen and Meaghan have also inspired others in their family to support the pantry. A couple of years ago for her father’s birthday party, Meaghan came up with the idea to ask guests to bring donations for the pantry rather than gifts. And her grandparents now regularly call to ask what the pantry is low on before making trips to the grocery store so that they can pick up whatever is most needed, she said.

With the holidays approaching, this time of year is typically one of the busiest for the pantry, according to Willett. The organization served nearly 100 families in November, he said, compared to an average of about 80 families per month throughout the rest of the year. He expects it to be just as busy for the final pick-up day of the year on Dec. 21.

Willett noted that an essential part of being a pantry volunteer is making sure the clients feel welcome — something he says Meaghan and Karen have excelled at.

“The key for the food pantry is consistency and friendliness, and that’s what they bring. We need the same faces here every month who are patient, kind,” Willett said. “Because again, people coming to use the pantry, they feel bad that they have to use it. So you need a friendly smile.”

The mother and daughter are quick to credit others involved in the pantry before themselves for its success, but stressed the importance of creating a place where people in need can feel like they are seen and valued.

“It’s building that sense of community that I think in this society we’ve lost because of computers, Internet, everything. People are so isolated and they live in isolation,” Karen said. “But something like this creates that sense of community that they don’t have anymore.”

Additional information about the pantry, including how to donate or volunteer, is available at dracutfoodpantry.com.