Top

For years volunteers have been sharing food with the needy of Milwaukee out of the food pantries at St. Casimir and Gaenslen School.

Holiday Helpers in Riverwest

Meet Isaiah, or Ike as his friends call him. He said you could “put down anything” for his last name. You may have seen him pushing his shopping cart on the sidewalk outside your house or along alleys, always with trash bags fat with aluminum cans draped over each side. Ike’s bloodshot eyes and weathered hands speak for his experience: an admittedly hard life spent on these streets. Ike was born in Eupora, Mississippi, and moved to Wisconsin 13 years ago with his wife and two children. Today he calls Riverwest his home. His day starts on Burleigh Street and ends at North Avenue. An admitted workaholic, he works seven days a week, digging through the trash, searching for aluminum cans that sometimes earn him $40 dollars a day – ten of which pays the rent where he stays. Ike has spoken to, but not seen his family since they moved to California. He said he’s now a grandfather. Like a lot of Milwaukee’s poor, Ike’s story this holiday season bears no resemblance to the iconic images of families huddled over their holiday feast. The Free Feast Most Americans can’t imagine a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner without turkey or ham, serving dishes swelling with mashed potatoes, boatloads of gravy, green-bean casserole, delicious dressing, and crimson-red cranberry sauce. It’s as American as the Super Bowl: families gathering together to celebrate their lives, thankful for what they have and hopeful for the future. However, for a handful of dedicated – and un-paid – tireless workers who manage local food pantries, and organize mass servings of vegetarian hot meals, this is the time of year they are the busiest. This is the time of year they are needed most. Donna Fletcher manages both the Saturday morning food pantry at St. Casimir’s Parish, 924 E. Clarke St., and the Tuesday evening food pantry at Gaenslen School, 1250E. Burleigh St. She believes that the number of people they supply increases during the holiday and winter months. The ones we serve, they are some of the neediest in Milwaukee. For some reason, they can’t rise up – life is too difficult,” said Fletcher. Early in her tenure she was paid through a grant by Hunger Task Force. However, the grant expired long ago, and even though she no longer receives a salary, Fletcher still estimates she works about 30 hours a week between both locations. For Fletcher it’s a job she can’t imagine walking away from. “For me to walk away right now, or drop dead, it would be very difficult to keep the two locations going, because it is a non-paid position that requires a lot of commitment,” said Fletcher. It’s a commitment that has certainly been tested over the years, especially since she broke her elbow and required a metal plate in her arm a few years ago. Over the years she has seen Riverwest change, both for the better and for the worse. “I think it’s changed for the better… the new buildings, the new condos – that bugged me. I am not happy to see the river disappear. I don’t like that, but I understand that if we want to keep [Riverwest] alive we do need to have change.” This November, both sites provided an extra bag of food, and families of three or more people received a chicken. On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, Fletcher and other volunteers distributed 30 turkeys and a bin of food at St. Casimir’s to families who regularly visit one of the food pantries. Fletcher believes the current trend is creating a larger gap between classes. “I feel that the middle class has definitely shrunk, and we are becoming a society of haves and have-nots. I’m not sure it’s happening in Riverwest, but I think the need is here and it is great.” Food Not Bombs Just a block from St. Casimir’s another group of dedicated volunteers making headway in the struggle against hunger is the newest chapter of Milwaukee Food Not Bombs. Headquartered at Cream City Collectives, at 732 E. Clarke St, MFNB helps Milwaukee’s hungry through staging mass servings of vegetarian meals in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. They rely exclusively on volunteers who not only help stock the food, whether horded by themselves or donated from area grocers and growers, but also cook the food in Riverwest. While MFNB is not new to Milwaukee, the current chapter started in July when they made their first serving in front of the CCC. Successive servings have happened since then, based mostly on Milwaukee’s south side where the members feel they see the need the most. “We feel there are people in other neighborhoods we can feed,” said chapter member Meagan Finger. It also allows them to branch out and set an example for other neighborhoods, where they can find more volunteers. In fact, after the first successful serving at Walker Square Park in September, they saw some of the same people came back for their second one in October. Seeing the turnout and the additional volunteers made member Justin Moody believe all the work was worth it. “I went home at the end of the day and felt like, did we really do anything today, and feeling really good.” “We didn’t even know half of the people there, and they just showed up,” added Finger. As a worldwide organization, Food Not Bombs has been around since 1980, and according to their site, www.foodnotbombs.net, they are one of the fastest growing revolutionary, grassroots movements around the world. Billed not as a charity, but an “all-volunteer organization dedicated to nonviolent social change,” FNB is also active on many political fronts, including America’s occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. But believing that helping the hungry doesn’t have to follow a political agenda, Milwaukee’s chapter stresses their apolitical stance and overall humanitarian mission. “We do it mostly for the social reasons, social justice. We don’t even talk about politics,” said Finger. “We’re more from the standpoint that there are hungry people out there,” added Moody. MFNB meets every first and third Monday of the month at Cream City Collectives at 7 pm. For more information about how you can volunteer or donate food contact Free Van Project Three long blocks to the north of St. Casimir’s, yet another group of young volunteers spent the summer stocking up on winter coats for the needy. Starting this May, the Milwaukee Network for Social Change (MNSC) operated a monthly free market at Garden Park on Locust and Bremen. “Since it was summer,” recalled MNSC founder John Revord, “people were donating a lot of winter clothes. We put those aside.” They were left in storage in Revord’s basement until this month. On December 2nd, the free market will go mobile, as the winter jackets and other necessities will be distributed free at the St. Ben’s soup kitchen on 9th and State. Every two weeks after that, the free van will make stops at other soup kitchens throughout Milwaukee. When MNSC was first making such plans, admitted Revord, many members thought their charitable activities would include a political message. “But then we realized that the act itself was inherently political,” he explained. “To cloud it with rhetoric might only deter some from participating.” To find out more about future times and location of the free vans, send an e-mail to