- Associated Press - Sunday, December 21, 2014

WEST SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) - When Martha Tighe retired from teaching after 43 years, she wanted a job where she could continue to help others. Now in her sixth year as executive director of The Parish Cupboard in West Springfield, she can safely cross that line off her to-do list.

“I cannot think of a better way to have gone from one career to another. I found something inside of me that I didn’t even know was there. It’s made my life a richer place,” she said.

Tighe oversees the non-profit with a small staff and many volunteers dedicated to helping the homeless and local families in need by means of two programs, a food pantry and a hot lunch program.

The pantry gives out groceries to between 180-200 families a month from West Springfield and Agawam. The number is significant considering its size in relation to the other emergency food programs in the area.

“For the pantry, we get seniors who are living alone and moms with six or seven kids. All ethnic groups visit the pantry. We are as generous with our groceries as we can be and give people close to 25 pounds of food, depending on what is in stock, what we’ve been able to get from the Food Bank or what churches or the public have donated. The more we have the more they get,” she said.

Lorraine Craven, the intake coordinator who does the paperwork for people coming in for groceries, runs the emergency food program. She also takes over in the kitchen when Bill Cawthra, facilities manager and cook, goes on a vacation.

“I have a wonderful back-up person so I don’t have to cook, which is probably a real good thing for everybody!” kidded Tighe.

The hot lunch program lasts one hour and feeds anywhere from 30-50 adults in a dining room that seats 15. Tighe helps at every lunch, greeting the day’s guests by name and coordinating the logistics of filling empty seats as the hearty and healthy meals are finished. She likes to joke and chat to stay connected with those coming in to eat. It helps her recognize when someone hasn’t been there for a while or when a person might be in need of extra help.

“We pull people out of their shells and we hear stories from them that they share with us. That’s really when you know you made it with them, when they’re willing to talk,” she said.

“These people are filled with a sense of hope. They may have slept in a tent last night but you ask how they are and they’re happy. They find a joy in life. It gives you a perspective on your own life and what you’re doing with it. That’s really cool.”

When Parish Cupboard gets donations of gift cards, they buy socks. Tighe lit up as she talked about stopping table to table to give each hot lunch guest new socks.

“They think they’ve died and gone to heaven with a clean, fresh pair of socks! We don’t take clothing but we give out sweatshirts when we have them in. If someone brings us a men’s jacket in the wintertime, we have a mental picture of who it could fit,” she said, sharing how her team also connect families visiting the pantry side with needed resources.

It’s the little things that warms hearts, Tighe says. A lending library for all ages in the foyer, colorful murals on the walls painted by artistic guests, salt and pepper shakers on the tables and, of course, the hot coffee cart when the weather turns colder.

“We have an older man who was so happy on the day when we switched over to coffee. A cup of coffee made his day. Those are the things our visitors say mean they’re special to us, that they’re not just a number,” she said.

The Parish Cupboard started in 1986 with a little outpost on Main Street that was quickly outgrown. The organization has been in the “old house on the corner” for almost twenty years, a building which stood strong in the direct destructive path of the June 2, 2011, tornado. It is in a prime spot for the people it serves, close for the homeless living in tents or on loading docks in the area and right near a major bus stop for families and individuals without a car.

“It’s a really special place and we’re just really fortunate to be where we are. By helping people and treating them respect, they give back so much respect and so much joy. Being here makes my day and my life a better thing,” she said.


To learn more about The Parish Cupboard in West Springfield, visit www.parishcupboard.com.

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