Juneau resident Jonathan Conklin isn’t alone in feeling the void left by the recent closing of longtime food pantry, Helping Hands.
“It’s been an awesome place,” Conklin said. “I’ve been here for 12 years, and it is pretty sad to see them go like this. I wish they were able to stay, I wish we could have come up with a way to keep them around, they’ve helped us out many times.”
Helping Hands Food Pantry officially closed its doors on Friday after serving Juneau for 39 years. Director Karen Fortwengler said she and her husband Kevin have been helping her mother Betty Kaplor run the pantry on and off roughly since it first opened.
“My family moved up here in 1983, my mom was at a grocery store downtown, I think it was Foodland, and she had gone behind the building and there was a dumpster back there,” Fortwengler said. “She saw somebody was digging through the dumpster and she started thinking that there had to be a better way for people in town to get food.”
Fortwengler said her mother started talking to different stores around town to see if they’d be willing to donate the food they weren’t able to use. Once enough stores agreed to donate, Fortwengler said, her mother started handing food out through her garage at home. From then, she slowly expanded to different locations, from the garage she went to a storage unit, then to a larger storage unit before eventually landing in the spot they’re most well known for at 6590 Glacier Highway, where they remained for the duration of their time.
According to Fortwengler, the decision to close came down to a simple lack of resources, which largely was caused by the pandemic and the struggles that came with trying to recover during the aftermath.
“The pandemic happened and so everything shut down and you couldn’t bring 100 people together for a fundraising dinner, that just wasn’t happening,” Fortwengler said. “Then a year later, the city still wasn’t real open to the idea of letting that many people gather. Even though we had savings, it was taking our savings down. So, it was hard to get everything back after the pandemic, plus food donations also went down a lot, too.”
In the end, Fortwengler said the pantry needed to shut down before it reached a point of having to owe money, but added that the decision did not come easily or without many efforts made to avoid it.
“It’s a huge loss for this community but like I’ve been telling anyone I talk to, I didn’t take this decision lightly at all. It’s been months and months of trying to figure out a way of avoiding having to come to this. I put different things out there like a GoFundMe, I got on the radio, I put up posters all over town, but none of it came through for us.”
At its height, Helping Hands was serving roughly 300 to 400 people weekly, Fortwengler said, when they were still holding Tuesday and Friday hours, which required the help of 25 to 30 volunteers. For the last year, the pantry had scaled back hours in an effort to save money and was only open on Fridays, which Fortwengler said dramatically reduced the number of people they were seeing through the door each week. Additionally, Fortwengler said that with the remaining food left over from the weekend, they’ll be putting it at the facility’s front door throughout the week for anyone to come by and pick up.
“We will post all information regarding leftover food on Helping Hands Food Bank of Juneau on Facebook and I’ll also put it out over the radio and a couple other social media pages,” Fortwengler said. “As we continue to clean out the space, we’ll be giving everything away. We’re not looking to sell anything other than the commercial freezers and refrigerators.”
Forgwengler added that she’d like to thank everyone from within the community that has helped the pantry in various ways over the years.
“From the board members to the volunteers we just want to give a big heartfelt thank you to everyone for their support, including the stores, anyone that helped us with donations in any form whether it was food or monetary donations,” Fortwengler said. “We definitely did appreciate everything and we’re sorry that this chapter had to come to an end, but I’d say 39 years was a pretty good run.”