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Arbutus nonprofit running low on supplies to help needy

The pantry inside Southwest Emergency Services on the Maple Avenue campus of Arbutus United Methodist Church looks like those of the people the organization tries to help.

Many of the shelves that once held jars of peanut butter and sauce and cans of soup, meats and other times are bare.

Hundreds of milk crates that held food only 6 months ago now just take up space.

The nonprofit's three chest freezers haven't kept anything frozen solid since before the heat of summer began, said SWES director Betty Okonski.

The barren area can't be blamed on increased demand for assistance, Okonski said.

"I think that a lot of the people who used to give to us are needing help themselves," said Okonski, who founded the nonprofit 30 years ago. "It's as worse as I've ever seen it."

To meet the steady demand while donations decline, Okonski has had to lower the amount of food given to the people who come in.

Whereas she once gave enough to feed a family seven breakfasts, seven lunches and seven dinners, SWES only hands out three grocery bags, Okonski said.

"We're only giving one can of tuna, whereas we used to give a couple of the big cans," she said. "We're doing the best we can, and hopefully we're supplementing whatever they can do."

In the morning of Sept. 16, a SWES customer from Riverview, who chose not to identify herself, carted three bags of food to her car to help feed her family of six.

She said she has come to SWES for food and clothing for four years because she was laid off from her job as a housekeeper and her husband only works three days a week.

"(SWES) is important as far as helping me, not for food for the whole month, but for one week or two weeks," the customer said.

SWES won't be able to buy its way out of trouble either. Okonski said the organization has only $1,800 in its bank account, which usually goes to help clients make utility payments.

Adding to the problem is that Okonski has neck surgery scheduled for Sept. 26.

The neck fusion will leave Okonski in a brace for eight to 12 weeks and unable to drive for two months.

"It is what it is. I have no choice. This has to be done," Okonski said of the surgery. "I've been trying to get as organized and to get as much stuff done as I can, knowing that I'm not going to be available for a while."

Her absence will be a blow.

Asked how important Okonski was to the organization, Naomi Morris, a SWES volunteer for 15 years, gasped.

"She's like the backbone (of this organization)," said the Arbutus resident. "She's the one who goes around to the businessmen and asks for help, practically begs for help."

SWES isn't the only food program feeling the pinch.

The nearby Maryland Food Bank on Halethorpe Farms Road, sells food at a discounted price to distribution centers in its network including SWES, all over the state except Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Deborah Flateman, the food bank's chief executive officer, has seen distribution of its food increase from 10 million pounds per year less than five years ago to 23 million pounds last year.

Getting food donations has proved challenging, though.

"The biggest trend that has affected us a great deal is that the traditional sources of donated food are drying up," Flateman said. "Now we have to find the funds to purchase this food.

"It's a harsh reality, and I think we are all struggling to handle it."

Okonski remains hopeful that help will arrive and SWES will survive.

On Sept. 28, the Warthen Fuel Company on Benson Avenue will hold it fourth annual SWES Benefit Walk to raise money and provide clothes, food and other necessities to the nonprofit organization.

That evening, customers mentioning SWES at the Chick-fil-A at 3599 Washington Boulevard will see a portion of the profits from their bill donated to SWES.

And there is always help of the unexpected variety.

Okonski recalled how recently SWES ran out of peanut butter, a food she likes to keep stocked for its nutritional value and universal appeal.

Later that day, someone came in with a donation of two jars of peanut butter. That didn't restock the shelves but it temporarily met the need.

"We're operating on faith, day by day. Just counting on God to supply our needs as we need them," Okonski said. "We're not doing the food baskets we're used to doing, that we'd like to do, but hopefully we are keeping people from starving."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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