Originally published in The Weekly Packet, January 11, 2018
Volunteer-run Tree of Life food pantry turns 30
by Faith DeAmbrose
With a no-questions-asked mentality, Tree of Life has been serving the communities of the greater Blue Hill Peninsula for the last three decades.
Including its sister shop, TurnStyle, collectively more than 100 volunteers staff the various positions that make the organization run.
Volunteers know that for some people it is hard to walk through the door of the food pantry, but the mission, providing “emergency and supplemental food to the community,” is something Tree of Life takes seriously.
“Some people will whisper their names; Mainers are proud people, so it is not always an easy thing,” said Judi Hilliker, president of the board of directors. But, regardless of a person’s situation, she added, “people are always made to feel welcome here.”
Part of the welcoming atmosphere is made possible by the “staff” which, like the food itself, is provided free of charge. Volunteers stock shelves, portion bulk items or greet clients coming through the door. Volunteers like Claire and Richard Klenowski, who have been lending a hand weekly for the last 12 years, are part of a well-oiled machine overseen by a board of directors. The Klendowskis live in Blue Hill and feel right at home in the milk, egg and meat section.
The pantry, which pioneered a model of sustainability, has been largely successful because of its secondhand clothing shop, TurnStyle. In fact, the model has been so successful that pantries in Bar Harbor and South Portland have sought to replicate it, said Hilliker, noting that two-thirds of the funding is provided from the sale of clothing. Other funding sources include grants and donations.
Blue Hill residents make up the most visits to the food pantry, 33 percent in 2015 (the latest year in which numbers were provided), followed by Sedgwick at 18 percent and Surry at 9.7 percent.
While there are a handful of area residents who rely on the service weekly, Hilliker said that for the most part people look to use it as little as possible.
Clients consist primarily of young or single-parent families, elderly residents, and those with acute needs, relying on the help after a one-off tragedy like a fire or automobile accident. She said that those who work seasonally will also utilize the assistance in the off season, and are “always happy to tell us when work starts up again that we won’t be seeing them anymore.”
The food provided comes primarily from the Good Shepard Food Bank, but over the years growers have donated excess crops, such as C&G Growers in Sedgwick, and grant funding has allowed the purchase of locally-sourced meats and vegetables from King Hill, Blue Zee and Horsepower farms in Penobscot, Misty Morning Farm in Blue Hill and from TradeWinds at discounted prices.
TradeWinds also helps annually by collecting at-the-register donations, which it matches up to $5,000 and the Blue Hill Co-op “donates items every week,” said Hilliker, who said the organization is grateful for all the help it receives throughout the year.
1987-88 Tree of Life begins in parsonage of First Congregational Church;
1989 TurnStyle moves to Piper Square (Water St., opposite Firehouse);
1992 TurnStyle moves beneath Partridge Drugstore;
1992 Florence Dodge donates land on South Street;
1993 Tree of Life becomes independent nonprofit;
1994 Enters into agreement with Rite Aid to exchange land on South Street; Rite Aid moves, renovates and expands Tree of Life building;
2006 Community raises $300,000 to renovate building, adding addition for food pantry;
2017 Tree of Life turns 30.