Visalia Emergency Aide ‘thankful’ for larger pantry

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VEAC opens doors to its new food pantry just in time for Thanksgiving

By Nancy Vigran, Reporter for The Sun-Gazette
VISALIA – The Visalia Emergency Aid Council’s new food pantry opened last week to a steady stream of customers. The new pantry and warehouse are four times larger than the old, adding much needed space and upgrades to serve well into the future.
A steady stream of customers came to the Visalia Emergency Aid Council (VEAC) on Nov. 16, but the line didn’t extend out the door as it often had in the past. Instead the new, larger office accommodates more visitors at once. Helping at the counter was Liz Wynn, VEAC’s executive director. She enjoys this aspect of her job.
“I love interacting with the clients,” she said. “They are so grateful, and at the same time I find out their needs, as well.”
The new office and food pantry opened on Thursday, right on schedule for the holiday season. The 6,000-square foot pantry and warehouse is four times the size of the old one, and also much taller.
Located on the same property already owned by VEAC, the new pantry groundbreaking was held in June. Just four months later, it is not totally complete, but far enough along to operate out of while finishing touches are added.
“And, boy, did we need it,” Wynn said.
In 2017, VEAC started fundraising for the project. An estimated $750,000 was needed to tear out some old, build the new, and refurbish some of the existing facility.
During the new construction, the food pantry operated out of an older adobe brick building, to which the new pantry is attached. The old building needs to have the floors raised a couple of feet to meet flood-prevention standards, and will then be used to extra VEAC storage space, non-food related, Wynn said.
The VEAC food pantry serves about 1,100 families from within the Visalia Unified School District area. The nonprofit was founded in 1931 at the same location, serving 150 families who had migrated west during the Dust Bowl era. While numbers continued to steadily grow through the years, there were spurts of additional assistance needed, with the highest numbers in 2004-2005. With limited funding, and limited staff, VEAC depends upon 1,400 volunteers who offer 19,000 hours each year, Wynn said.
Some of those volunteers come through employment retraining programs. Jose Ramirez, who injured his back on a fall at his former job, is one of those. For the past 10 months, during his recovery period, he has dedicated his time to the warehouse and serving the public, while following his doctor’s orders.
“I love helping others,” he said. And through this, his first experience with customer service, he enjoys the communication with others. “You learn to treat others with respect and compassion.”
 Efrain Gutierrez is one of VEAC’s 1,400 volunteers who help each year. He spends 40 hours a week in the food pantry warehouse during a work retraining program following a past injury at his old job. Photo by Nancy Vigran

Efrain Gutierrez is one of VEAC’s 1,400 volunteers who help each year. He spends 40 hours a week in the food pantry warehouse during a work retraining program following a past injury at his old job. Photo by Nancy Vigran

Likewise, Efrain Gutierrez, is in the same program. Due to an injury to his back and shoulder he has not been able to drive a truck, which he did for his former employment. He, too, enjoys learning and the warehouse work, he said.
VEAC has a lot of assistance through this type of program and in turn the volunteers are taught some of the basic employment essentials, and new skills, Wynn said.
Angie Martinez, who has always worked in an office setting, is very much enjoying her role in the warehouse and pantry.
“It’s different and I like it,” said the single mother of three.
Following completion of the warehouse and pantry, and the refurbishing of the former temporary pantry, the parking lot will be leveled and repaved and new chain-link fencing is planned. The new pantry facility is all under one roof.
The only remaining outlying building is the former Cal Fire barracks built in the 1930’s, which formerly housed the food pantry office and remains the home of the VEAC executive offices. The former pantry office will be developed into a community room for a variety of uses including local classes offered by various VEAC partners, Wynn said. Here, Kaweah Delta Healthcare District just held a free flu-vaccination clinic.
The new food pantry’s freezer was chalked full of turkeys. Some 700 family “turkey baskets” with turkeys, vegetables, stuffing and other fixings were to be given out this week.
The VEAC office and pantry are located at 217 NE 3rd Ave. The pantry hours are Tuesday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the fourth Saturday of each month. The pantry is closed on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Much of VEAC’s day-to-day funding comes through its thrift store, located at 620 W. Houston Ave. While the store offers affordable clothing, linens, household items, furniture and appliances, it also provides free clothing for those in need, as well as interview clothes for those seeking employment. Donations are accepted seven-days-a-week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.

14th Annual Race Against Hunger

On Thanksgiving, more than 5,000 runners and walkers are to take off down the streets of Visalia at a turkey trot in a “Race Against Hunger.” Said to be the largest 5K annual run in the Central Valley, this is also the largest fundraiser for the Visalia Emergency Aid Council (VEAC). The 5K run/2-mile walk challenges participants to form teams and creatively dress for the event on Thanksgiving morning.  
VEAC believes in the inspiration of the future generation to care for their community and, as such, have incorporated a “Kids’ Race” into the annual event. The quarter-mile race provides children with the opportunity to give back, “Children Helping Children,” while promoting health, fitness, and fun.
The run and walk start on Main St. at Garden, at 8 a.m. Participants may still enter on the day of the race. Sign-in and entry starts at 7 a.m. Race sponsors pay for all expenses of the race itself, so all entry fees help serve the local community through the VEAC pantry. Entry fees are $30/adult; $15/children, 12 and under.