Tortilla traction: Bread isn’t enough to solve this good Samaritan’s latest challenge

Debbie Belanger is a mother of eight, grandmother of eight and food provider for thousands more. As the board president of the nonprofit Samaritan Inc., she and about 100 other volunteers help feed about 300 families each week in the greater Bangor area. That’s about 25,000 individuals each year.

Six days per week, at locations in Herman, Kenduskeag, Glenburn, Hudson and two spots in Bangor, the volunteers with the traveling food pantry hand out vegetables, fruits, baked goods, eggs, milk and deli meats — donated by Hannaford — to people suffering from food insecurity. She has gotten to know the face of hunger.

“It never ends. It’s just that cycle that they’re in, and they can’t get out. Food is No. 1,” Belanger, 54, said. “I call us all a big family. We’re just a big family and help out one another.”

Debbie Belanger (center) and Cathie Spaulding help to unload food at the Mystic Tie Grange Hall in Kenduskeag, which is one town in which the Samaritan Inc. food cupboard gives away food to people in need. Belanger serves as president of the nonprofit, and Spaulding is the site manager in Kenduskeag. Gabor Degre | BDN

Debbie Belanger (center) and Cathie Spaulding help to unload food at the Mystic Tie Grange Hall in Kenduskeag, which is one town in which the Samaritan Inc. food cupboard gives away food to people in need. Belanger serves as president of the nonprofit, and Spaulding is the site manager in Kenduskeag. Gabor Degre | BDN

It may seem confounding that hunger still exists in Maine. The state has the highest rate of food insecurity in New England and the 18th highest rate nationally. About 15 percent of Maine households lack access to enough food to ensure adequate nutrition. About 7 percent have what’s considered very low food security.

Many of the people Belanger sees have work but make too much to qualify for food stamps and not enough to feed their family. So they rely on charity.

Six days a week, volunteers pick up the food items at various Hannaford stores, pack them in boxes and bring them to a distribution site — such as a town hall, grange or church — where they set them up like a farmers market. About 50-60 boxes of food, each worth up to $50, are donated per day, and residents can pick what food they like and need.

Esther Grant, 84, sorts food at the Mystic Tie Grange hall in Kenduskeag where the Samaritan Inc. food cupboard gives away food for people in need. Gabor Degre | BDN

Esther Grant, 84, sorts food at the Mystic Tie Grange hall in Kenduskeag where the Samaritan Inc. food cupboard gives away food for people in need. Gabor Degre | BDN

People have approached her nearly in tears, thankful for the food. She talks with them and gets to know them. One woman who comes has a sick mother, who Belanger asks after. Another woman doesn’t take sweets, to keep her household healthy. The statistics are one thing. The people are another.

“It’s not about numbers. It’s about the person,” she said. “You get close to all of them.”

The last several weeks have been trying for the entirely volunteer-run organization. On Jan. 3, volunteers were on their way to Hudson to deliver food when a car, unable to stop because of the weather, slid through a red light and crashed into the side of the nonprofit’s only van, pushing it into another car. No one was injured, but the van was totaled.

“We don’t have an office or anything. We joke about it. Our office is in the truck,” Belanger said.

Ever since, Samaritan Inc. has been using a rental van to pick up and deliver food. Though the rental has held up well under demanding conditions, it would be far less stressful if the nonprofit had a vehicle of its own. On Saturday, Jan. 11, the rental had an adventure Belanger would be happy not to repeat.

That’s the day Belanger and volunteer Michelle Mclaskey were pulling out of the Hannaford parking lot onto Bangor Mall Boulevard — after picking up food to deliver — when they spotted another vehicle in a snowbank.

It was freezing cold outside, and icy, and the vehicle was stuck, Belanger noticed. She also saw that even though the driver was out of the vehicle, his wheels were still spinning, indicating he was likely still in drive or reverse. So the women stopped to live up to their Samaritan name and tell him.

They discovered a problem, however, when they tried to get going again, as they had stopped on a small incline. Michelle put the truck in gear and stepped on the gas pedal. The engine roared to life, but the truck was no match for the ice-covered roads. The 16-foot van spun out of control, and the two women found themselves sideways in the road.

The road was so slick, Belanger could only slide — not walk — to the back of the truck. But an idea had struck: bread. They put tortilla wraps under the tires of their truck — even throwing some to the stranded motorist — and then returned to the cab and said a quick prayer. Their truck lurched forward.

“Oh, my word, it was awesome,” she said. “We found another way to use our daily bread.”

They made it to their site that day, and they will keep using their rental to give food to those who need it.

But, “we’re in desperate need of a new truck,” Belanger said. The only major donations they regularly receive come in the form of perishable food items and people’s time. They also accept monetary donations at the places where they deliver food, which pay for gas, truck maintenance and insurance.

But they have no way of purchasing a truck with a back that both cools and heats — to keep food cold in the summer and not freezing in the winter. They are looking for donations to be able to buy one. Or perhaps someone has a used or new truck he or she wouldn’t mind giving away. Belanger said she figures it can’t hurt to ask.

You never know, after all, when a good Samaritan will show up in your greatest hour of need.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Questions? Contact Debbie Belanger at 200­-4747 or mom.belanger@gmail.com.

Have donations? Make checks payable to Samaritan Inc. and mail to David Schroeher, 1476 Broadway, Bangor, Maine 04401.

Or attend a benefit concert with Founded Trio, Exit 244, Chasing the Light and two other artists on Feb. 22 at the Rock Church on Ohio Street in Bangor. Doors open at 5 p.m.

Need food? Food pantry sites open around 9:30 a.m. Locations are as follows:

Monday: Hermon Baptist Church, 249 Route 2, Hermon 04401.

Tuesday: Kenduskeag Grange Hall, 3964 Route 15, Kenduskeag 04450.

Wednesday: Wesleyan Church, 146 Center St., Bangor 04401.

Thursday: Glenburn Covenant Church, 911 Hudson Road, Glenburn 04401.

Friday: Hudson Town Hall, 2334 Hudson Road, Hudson 04449.

Saturday: The Rock Church, 1195 Ohio St., Bangor 04401.

 

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.