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A new outdoor food pantry in New Kensington where people take what they need and leave what they can is proving to be so successful that those who built it are figuring out how to make it bigger.
The pantry outside the Community Clothes Closet was packed full of goods Wednesday afternoon, with a box of donated food that simply would not fit.
“I was completely overwhelmed and so happy,” said Tara Salem of New Kensington, whose group, AK Valley Dash Blast, built the pantry. “I was afraid I was going to get here and it was going to be empty, honestly.
“I couldn’t believe that so many people were donating.”
Salem, 39, said she started AK Valley Dash Blast as a Facebook group in May. She based it on a Pennsylvania group, its members mostly in Philadelphia.
The idea is to leave a gift on someone’s door to brighten their day.
“I thought, maybe, it would last a month and everyone would get sick of it, but it just kept growing,” she said.
The private group has about 1,300 members from across the Alle-Kiski Valley.
While the group’s members are still “dashing” gifts, they’ve taken on other projects, too. The first was a memorial for Mikel Fetterman at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Fetterman, 2, died at the hospital April 24; his mother, Teresa Fetterman, and Keith Dale Lilly Jr. are charged in his abuse and death.
The food pantry was the next project.
“The woman who runs the Community Clothes Closet was wanting to do it for years but didn’t have the funds or anyone to build it,” Salem said.
Her group raised the money, and Salem’s husband, Jim, built it. It was installed Sunday outside the entrance to the Community Clothes Closet, in the former Mary Queen of Apostles school building at St. Joseph Church, off Kenneth Avenue.
The pantry started with items donated by the dash group’s members, such as non-perishable food items, water, toiletries and feminine hygiene products.
“I’m just hoping anyone in need will be able to get what they can to hold them over,” Salem said.
Christina Discello started the Community Clothes Closet eight years ago and is its director. It offers clothing to anyone in need at minimal prices or for free.
“I am thrilled. I am so thankful,” she said. “People that I don’t know and have never spoken to, they purchased the supplies, they built it, they installed it, they did everything. We’re just so blessed to have people out there who would do this for a total stranger.”
Discello said the Closet has a small indoor food pantry, but she’s had to reduce its hours of operation because of the covid-19 pandemic. She wanted an outdoor pantry but didn’t know who would build one. She asked her daughter, Sara Schwartz, who is a member of the AK Valley Dash group, if she knew anyone.
“She put it out there and they jumped on it, which was incredible,” Discello said. “There is such a need for food in this area. I wanted a place where people could just go and get what they need without having to go through anything. They can just walk up and get it.”
Discello said she’ll check the pantry each day.
“I don’t expect anyone to leave things. If they do, that’s wonderful,” she said. “If someone takes it all, they needed it. I’ll go replenish it.”
Next: Thanksgiving dinners
Salem said the group also plans to deliver about 450 Thanksgiving dinners to residents of four senior high-rises — Arnold Towers, Citizens Plaza in New Kensington, Springdale Manor and McMurty Towers in Vandergrift.
The group’s members and businesses have donated food and supplies, and Allegheny Valley Church of Christ in New Kensington is giving them use of their kitchen to cook and assemble the meals.
With extra money they raised, Salem said the group will be getting Christmas presents for seniors in area nursing homes, which they’re still working on.
“We’re hoping that covid restrictions are lifted a little bit so we can deliver them in person,” she said. “If not, we’ll just leave them at the desk.”
Salem said she isn’t sure what the group will do or where it will go after Christmas.
“I’d like to continue doing community service projects,” she said.
“I’m definitely in awe of all the women and men in the group,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people message me and say they were really depressed, especially during covid. This helped them out of a bad time and gave them something to look forward to, so that’s really nice.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .
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