BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
While St. John’s Thrift Store and Food Pantry in Brownsville has been closed to the public for more than two months as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic, that doesn’t mean it has stopped assisting its local community.
Quite the contrary: according to manager, Barbara Fitzhugh, lately they have been helping approximately 35-40 families a day with items from the food pantry.
Fitzhugh, who belongs to St. John the Evangelist Parish in Sunfish, said in a May 8, 2020 phone interview with The Western Kentucky Catholic that they look forward to reopening – but with tight restrictions – on May 20, following Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s reopening guidelines.
“We miss our people,” said Fitzhugh of the store’s customers. “I’ll be glad to see them again.”
Before St. John the Evangelist Parish opened the non-profit thrift store in 2014 and the food pantry in 2016, Edmonson County had virtually no community assistance resources in the area.
The store, located in a refurbished old house, with the food pantry in a separate building behind it, had become a fixture in the community.
“Some don’t come to shop,” said Fitzhugh. “They come to sit and talk. Because they have no one and they’re lonely.”
Then, the pandemic happened.
The thrift store lost all of its workers, who had received their wages through state-funded programs – all of which were frozen for the time being. This left Fitzhugh, her husband, and their daughter to manage everything.
And even before state mandates closed all retail businesses, Fitzhugh had been advised by the health clinic down the road and the local pharmacy that it would be wise to close the thrift store, considering the frequent flow of people entering and exiting the store. Circumstances were just too unpredictable, and many of the workers – as well as shoppers – were elderly, putting them at risk.
Saddened but determined to help protect the community, they officially closed to the public on March 10.
“I never thought in a million years something like this would happen,” Fitzhugh told the WKC.
St. John’s instituted “no-contact” distribution from the food pantry, following statewide guidelines to protect the safety of everyone involved. This includes keeping a list of what’s in the food pantry that day, so that Fitzhugh can read the list to clients, rather than having them step inside and unnecessarily touch items.
She’s also been trying to meet privately with clients, since many who never before sought assistance are afraid to possibly encounter people they know.
“It breaks my heart that there are people out there, and people who don’t want to ask” for help, said Fitzhugh.
When possible, she will place the requested items outside the food pantry to be picked up by those who call ahead. The purpose is twofold: it lessens interaction and chances of contamination, and also provides anonymity.
Another project she’s working on is ensuring that this summer they will be able to continue their Feeding America collaboration with the local Brownsville Missionary Baptist Church.
That partnership began back in 2018, and Fitzhugh knows their community will need it more than ever before.
Fitzhugh has tried to keep up with the store’s regulars, whom she knows are feeling especially isolated these days. She said she’s actually called some of them herself, or if they’re on Facebook she has sent them a message to check in.
It is an understatement that Fitzhugh looks forward to reopening on May 20.
Fitzhugh already had hand sanitizer stations set up around the store long before the pandemic, and they will be regulating the number of people who can be inside at one time. Masks will be required for all who enter the store, and there will be no public restroom. Anyone who is sick will not be permitted to enter.
Fitzhugh knows many of their regular shoppers will return when they reopen, and she hopes people follow the safety guidelines.
“They’ll have to understand that they’ll have to follow the rules until things go back to normal,” she said.
The store is managing with funds for now – “I did put a little money aside because you never know what could happen” – but Fitzhugh worries about the future. As of May 8, they had learned that they will be able to have a single government-funded worker.
“I’m afraid it’s not going to get a lot better before it gets worse,” she said.
Fortunately, they have no lack of items to sell, since they have received “very generous” donations of items during the store’s closure: “We have been blessed!”
“What do we do?” said Fitzhugh. “We just pray and do the best we can.”
St. John’s Thrift Store and Food Pantry is a non-profit, which means they can accept monetary donations. To donate, call (270) 597-1038 or mail the donation to 301 N. Main St., Brownsville, KY, 42210, c/o St. John’s Food Pantry or St. John’s Thrift Store.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic