Damien Center food pantry

Once a week, office space in the Damien Center is converted into a food pantry, where community members can get the grocery and toiletry items they need. (Photo/Breanna Cooper)

After years of having a food pantry that served only those with HIV, staff at the Damien Center grew weary of turning hungry people away. So, they recently expanded the nonprofit organization’s food pantry to serve anyone in need.

Ashley Jackson, one of the leaders of the weekly pantry — known as Community Tuesday — said turning away those without an HIV diagnosis pushed workers and volunteers to address the growing need in the Holy Cross community.

“When you’re able to bring yourself to ask for food, you really need it.” Jackson said of the stigma surrounding food insecurity. “We wanted to provide more for the community.”

With help from Damien Center staff, volunteers and community partners, Community Tuesday has been held once a week since Jan. 7. So far, as many as 60 people have been served in one day. Jackson hopes this number, and the size of their allocated space, will increase with warmer weather. 

Community Tuesday doesn’t hand out pre-packed bags of groceries and toiletries, but offers individuals the chance to “shop” for items, as well as the opportunity to meet new people.

Before visitors begin to fill up their two grocery bags with items such as tuna and apples, they can grab a sandwich provided by Second Helpings and eat together at one of the several tables set up on the second floor of the center. 

This sense of community and belonging, volunteer Jeffrey Tuttle said, is what the Damien Center represents to clients, and now to the larger community.

Tuttle, who has been a client of the Damien Center since his AIDS diagnosis in 2001, was hired to work part time in the food pantry and helped develop Community Tuesdays. 

“The Damien Center is my family,” Tuttle said. “It’s my community, my friends, and I’m saying that not as a worker, but as a client. They’re accepting of everyone, and it’s so important to have community, brotherhood and smiles, and that’s what the Damien Center provides. … It’s changed my life.”

The Damien Center, which offers testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), still operates a food pantry just for those with HIV.

Jackson and Tuttle make sure the Community Tuesday pantry stays full and organize drop-offs for donated goods. Jackson said the biggest need for the pantry is toiletries, including toilet paper and deodorant. As for grocery needs, anything high in protein, such as tuna or peanut butter, is always recommended. 

As a line began moving in the Community Tuesday pantry recently, upbeat music filled the room and people began sitting down with their lunch, greeting one another. 

“We don’t want this to be a daunting experience,” Tuttle said. “We want it to be a community experience.” 

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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