By Beth Altena
The area’s largest food pantry will undergo a change in leadership at the beginning of the new year.
Sandy Waite, Executive Director of North Kent Community Services, will retire from the center December 31 to spend more time with her family. “In the years ahead, I look forward to spending more time with family and grandchildren, my church and friends,” she said.
Waite’s employment history with the center has spanned eight years in which she has accomplished many milestones for North Kent Community Services. Since 2002, the center has provided over six million pounds of food to area families—the total number of pounds in 2011 was nearly doubled from 2002. In 2011, North Kent Community Services had 20,468 visits through their doors along with supporting six other pantries in their community.
Her most recent event was the Neighbors Helping Neighbors First Annual Gala, which raised over $40,000 for the center. Waite has led North Kent Community Services for eight years and has greatly benefited her community, staff, and volunteers.
Over the 40 years the center has been providing services for families in need, there have been only three paid directors. Marilyn Lind was the first, followed by Tom Pearce, who went on to be the Rockford area State Representative, and then Waite.
Waite said the NKCS is a very busy organization, the only pantry in the area open 40 hours a week. The last decade has been a critical time for many families facing financial difficulties. Waite said she has seen an astounding climb from about 1,200 families seeking help to over 10,000. Need is still at a historic high, but has leveled off from the highest at year end 2009 and beginning of 2010.
Changes during Waite’s tenure include going from a pantry where volunteers pack boxes of food for families to becoming a pantry of choice, where clients choose their own food items. “That is a huge improvement. How can I be in a position to know what is in your pantry?” Waite explained. “You may have a child at home who is allergic to peanuts and I could pack peanut butter in your box of food.” She said the opportunity for families to pick out their own items is just one of many improvements she has been fortunate to oversee.
“We were able to change to an ID card check-in system with grants we received,” Waite explained. She said the center also has been able to add an additional refrigerator and walk-in freezer since she started. It also has become a distribution point for Toys for Tots, which allows clients to select from locally-donated toys.
“This is a huge improvement,” she said. “Instead of donations going somewhere else, they come here and our clients can pick them up here.” She stated that the success of that change has made the center a model for other service programs. Since she started the center has implemented a backpack give-away for school children, and an Easter basket program. In addition the center offers services for tax preparation, holiday meals, birthday presents and cakes, layettes for new moms, and a Nutritional Wellness pantry.
Waite said there are eleven resource centers in Kent County which offer an assortment of relief services, and of them, NKCS offers 48 percent of the total services, leaving 52 percent of the other ten combined. In addition to being a food pantry, the center can offer assistance with utility bills, shelter/rent and medical co-pay needs. Shopping for clothing, household items, toys, books, bedding, video, supplemental items is offered as well as referrals to other social service agencies.
Waite said most people who know her through the center probably don’t realize she has a commute of 78 miles each way, each day, bracketing her ten-hour work shift. From her home just a bit north of Baldwin, Waite sees a lot of landscape on her way to work, and as a retiree, she looks forward to putting boots to the ground on Michigan’s trails and parks.
She said one of her many goals is to walk the entire Michigan length of the North Country Trail, which locally crosses through Nelson Township on Cedar Springs Public School property and crosses the White Pine Trail near 17 Mile Road. She said most people don’t realize the trail—not fully developed in this area—begins in New York State, crosses Pennsylvania, comes through Michigan and goes all the way West to the Dakotas.
Waite said in addition to hiking here in her home state, she also plans international travel, noting there are only two states in the United States she hasn’t visited—Utah and Oregon—and only three continents—South America, Antarctica and Australia—where she has yet to set foot. “I won’t disappear, I will still be active in my church and in the community and volunteer,” she said.