Each month, a man with a weak handshake and a slow, awkward gate shuffles through the faded, brown doors of the Trenton Food Pantry.
Volunteers have affectionately dubbed him "Chia Pet," because he recently grew his hair back after finishing a long round of chemotherapy treatments that left him bald and thin.
Now, as he checks in with pantry staff, his hair is shoulder-length and he has a full beard that reaches down to the collar of his t-shirt.
"Chia Pet’s" real name is Tom Collier, and for Collier the food pantry is a necessary monthly stop.
He is currently in his fourth bout with cancer and his body is too weak and fragile to keep a job.
Over the last 37 years, Carole Tarnowski has used the Trenton Food Pantry to feed thousands of Trenton residents who, like Collier, are unable to feed themselves.
Tarnowski is a co-chairperson of the pantry and has provided free food to needy families in Trenton since 1975.
An economic crisis similar to the one Trenton residents are experiencing today lead to the creation of the food pantry in the late 1960s, according to Tarnowski.
Since the pantry was founded, it has operated out of a back entrance to St. Timothy’s Church in Trenton. A church parishioner first began collecting food for needy residents after the auto industry began to hit a low-point, Tarnowski said.
”It ain't no Mickey Mouse operation."—Paul Gauthier, volunteer
“The parishioner talked to area merchants (businesses) and asked if they would help in donating in any way, either cash or merchandise, to help the auto workers that were in need,” Tarnowski said.
Now, Tarnowski and fellow co-chairperson Paul Gauthier serve about 30-45 families in need per week.
Gauthier said he volunteered for a few months with the pantry after he retired from Ford Motor Company in 2007, and just decided to stay. He became a co-chairperson in 2010.
“It makes me feel better about myself,” Gauthier said. “People are very embarrassed to be here ... we make it as painless as possible for them.”
No one at the pantry gets paid.
Volunteers from six local churches take turns staffing the no-budget operation. Every dollar that comes into the pantry is spent on food. Volunteers use much-needed donation dollars to purchase food from nearby stores.
“We are retired teachers, retired nurses and people from all walks of life—and I think it’s wonderful,” Tarnowski said.
Tarnowski added she is pleased to see the same volunteers month after month, and has made life-long friendships with many of them.
Michael Barrett, a social worker who worked in Detroit, is on disability and said he wants to give back to his community while he is away from his job.
“It’s important to give back because you really never know,” Barrett said. “I’ve been in a situation where I was unemployed and I needed to use a food pantry. And I eventually got back to work and created my career in social work.”
The pantry services families of all ages and backgrounds.
Gauthier said many of those who come in for food are retirees, on disability, recent widows and widowers, unemployed, homeless, or have medical issues.
"It ain't no Mickey Mouse operation," Gauthier said.
Collier isn’t the only pantry client suffering from cancer. Gauthier said a father of eight recently diagnosed with brain cancer visits once per month.
When the father of eight and Collier visit the pantry, volunteers usually slip a few extra food items in their bags because, “they need the extra protein” according to one volunteer.
Tarnowski, Gauthier and volunteers like Norb Wegienka are the backbone of the pantry and oversee every food item that comes through the door.
“I just feel it’s time to give back to the people in the community,” Wegienka said. “You don’t realize how many people need help.”
The Trenton Food Pantry is open from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Volunteers and donations are always needed.
To find out more about the food pantry call St. Timothy's Church, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. Joseph Church, St. Phillips Church, First United Methodist Church of Trenton or Faith United Methodist Church.