Leelanau News and Events

Behind The Scenes At Leelanau Christian Neighbors

By Emily Tyra | July 15, 2022

Around lunchtime on any given Monday at Leelanau Christian Neighbors, there are cars snaked around the parking lot, lined up almost out to M-204. It’s a convivial scene: people leaning out their windows to chat, some seated at picnic tables. The Leelanau Christian Neighbors food pantry doors won’t open until 2pm, but patrons gather early just to talk and be…neighbors.

This is a touchstone of the week for many, says Leelanau Christian Neighbors (LCN) executive director Mary Stanton. The nonprofit is now in its 35th year serving county residents who have inadequate resources. 

A staggering stat: Leelanau County has the largest affordability gap in the nation between Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and the average cost of a meal, according to a study released by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute. The economic research nonprofit showed how every county in the country stacked up, revealing that in 2020, the average meal in Leelanau County — estimated to be about $6.16 — was 68 percent more than the SNAP benefit. And this was in 2020.

What’s more, ALICE (Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed) numbers show how our pastoral and lakeside paradise hides staggering levels of near-poverty: 43 percent of Leelanau County households cannot afford any unexpected expenses (such as car repairs, health deductibles) or increases in basic expenses (such as food, transportation, childcare, a basic phone plan).

The LCN manages six programs, supported by a vibrant volunteer workforce: the Food Pantry, LCN Baby Pantry, Blessings In A Backpack, Neighborhood Assistance Ministry (NAM), Samaritans’ Closet, and, most recently, an Affordable Housing Fund.

“We started as a couple of people giving out bags of food to what we are today, all because of need and community support,” says Stanton.

Anneke Wegeman-Plamondon is a volunteer at LCN, who helps coordinate its Monday food pantry. She says a goal for LCN is to stock fresh, local produce so “neighbors can stretch their food dollar.” This time of year, LCN gets fresh-picked donations. Each summer, Bardenhagen Berries typically donates enough strawberries for about 70 to 80 neighbors who visit the food pantry. “We just got a whole bunch of fresh produce from TLC Farms, but we also buy fresh produce,” explains Stanton.

“We have a lot to be thankful for with the support of our community,” says LCN finance manager Kathleen Hackleman. “I’m always telling people, ‘look what kind of quality of food we’re giving people, with fresh produce and fresh dairy.’”

LCN purchasing volunteers also buy a steer and three pigs every other month from RRR in Buckley. “It’s wonderful meat…can you imagine?” notes Stanton.

But it goes beyond nourishing with food: The Neighborhood Assistance Ministry (NAM) is a financial assistance program, where anyone with a need “can come in to talk with the team. We often can cut a check to a third party right then. We help with utility bills, but recently we are seeing a lot of bigger needs: a new furnace, new septic.” These have become the deal breakers for families on the edge of poverty in the county.

In addition, when the food pantry is open, “We have a representative from the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department’s Parenting Communities here to make sure those moms are being supported and surrounded by any help that they need. And there’s a Department of Health and Human Services representative here. People can walk right into her office.”

Stanton describes the Leelanau residents they serve as, “People who need support. We see a lot of senior citizens. We see those with both people in the family working. Or perhaps only one person in the family is working because childcare is unavailable or too expensive. We see people with health concerns, and because of that they’re unable to work.”

LCN board president Charlie Bumb adds, “The only requirement is that they have an address in Leelanau County. We don’t know what their income is or their position; we just serve them.”

He says recently the board has branched out its outreach to start an “Affordable Housing Fund.” What that looks like in real life: A $250,000 donation from LCN for the HomeStretch affordable housing unit on Marek Road in Suttons Bay, which is in the last stretch of fundraising before it can break ground.

A gift of that size was a bold move by the board, says Stanton, one they are proud of. “We want the community to know that this is important. If we put some money out there, maybe people would realize that and come along. I really believe it helped the project get momentum.”

Meanwhile, on a sunny Monday back at the food pantry headquarters, the baby pantry lead volunteer Jeannie Coulter is surrounded by buzzing crew — a mom and daughter pack diapers, another volunteer organizes the children’s books they send along with the diapers and formula, in partnership with Power Bookbags. Coulter says they serve 40 families with young kids in the county.

A similarly nimble team packs bags for Blessings in a Backpack, for 150 elementary-age kids and 100 high schoolers at St. Mary, Northport, Leland, Suttons Bay and Glen Lake schools, “to alleviate the hunger many of our local children experience on weekends during the school year,” says Stanton. The high school kits also include hygiene products.

Bumb notes that it’s remarkable LCN can successfully administer five programs with “only five employees.” It all depends on a workforce of 200 volunteers from thirteen Leelanau County churches plus other county residents.

As they head into a 35th summer, Stanton has reached out to the many families who were important to the development of LCN. She recently heard from James Eaton, pastor of Suttons Bay Congregational Church when LCN started back in 1987. “Considering we started in a closet under the stairs at Suttons Bay Congregational Church…I’m so glad it has continued and thrived,” he says.

Adds Stanton, “Every bit of the history of LCN is because of the wonderful, giving and compassionate community we live in. Neighbors helping neighbors. We obviously believe in what we do here, and we believe that it’s necessary.”

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This weekend, LCN will host a “Buy the Runway Gala,” a fashion show and cocktail party highlighting outfits curated from LCN’s own Samaritans’ Closet. The event is at the Old Art Building in Leland, Sunday July 17, from 5pm to 7pm. “You can socialize, snack and bid all while enjoying a fashion show with local models and colorful commentary by Charlie Boesel and his mom Lucy,” shares organizer MaryAnn Knowles. Proceeds support all the programs offered at LCN. Tickets ($65) can be purchased online, at LCN in Lake Leelanau, or at the door. 

Pictured: Mary Stanton (L) and a LCN volunteer stocking the food pantry.

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