Just lending a hand

Volunteers to Our Lady’s Pantry come from across the country with a lifetime of experience in countless areas.  For Jim Mecsko, that experience is in electronics.  With a concentration in computer programing, Mecsko served as test engineer on the sonar section, in the front of the U.S. Navy’s Mark-48 torpedo, at Gould Oceans Systems.  He also served as gaming commissions officer, writing inventory software for the Hard Rock Casino.

After moving to Apollo Beach 32 years ago, and retiring almost five years ago, Mecsko learned of Our Lady’s Pantry, and showed up one Saturday.

“I like to help others, if I see a need,” he says.  “I was looking for a sense of purpose after I retired.”

At the Pantry, Mecsko fit in immediately, working outside doing the heavy lifting with other guys, moving cartons of fresh produce and meats from the cooler and freezer to the porch to share with our clients, and loading filled boxes of food into their cars.

Then one day, when things had slowed down outside, Mecsko wandered inside the Pantry to see what was going on behind the scenes.  Among other things, he saw lines of helpers packing non-perishable foods into boxes.  Then he spotted the registration desks, where folks signed in to get food.

He noticed Anita Bullaro shuffling multiple copies of paper as clients gave their names.  Our Lady’s Pantry must keep an assortment of records both for the Church and Feeding Tampa Bay because of our U.S. Department of Agriculture order.

Mecsko took it all in, then went back outside, where it was getting busy again.  Days later, an idea was born.

“I thought to myself, why can’t this information be computerized?”

Man holding big box of food, pantry truck in background

Jim Mecsko works outdoors on Saturday morning loading boxes of non-perishables, fresh produce, baked goods and meat into clients' cars. This past weekend the Pantry had double rows of cars from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

Uniquely qualified as a computer programmer among all the volunteers at the Pantry, he got to work.  Because of the large number of persons coming to the Pantry for food, clients had been divided into two groups years earlier, each group coming for food on alternate Saturdays.

The first thing he did was to give identification numbers (ID) to everyone, he says.  Clients with odd numbers came one week; those with even numbers came another week.

He then met with Pantry director Tom Bullaro and his wife Anita to learn what kind of information they needed for their various reports.  He also met with Dan Somma, who writes many of the grants for the Pantry, to understand his needs when filling out applications.

With this understanding, and the help of Excel and a variety of other computer tools, Mecsko was able to identify how many clients came to the pantry on a given week, and whether these individuals lived alone.  If a household includes a family, he could record the number of children.  Importantly, these numbers were retrievable in seconds, whenever needed for any report.

As the Pantry expanded, Mecsko has been able to expand the software program to keep track of everything.

“For example, because not everyone has a car to pick up food, some clients pick up for their friends and family,” he says.  “We can now tabulate who is authorized to pick up for whom.”

According to Mecsko, Pantry clients no longer come inside the building because of the coronavirus, but stay in their cars.  For this reason, registrations can no longer be computerized immediately, on site, at the registration desk inside.  But clients still give their ID numbers and either Anita or Mecsko enter them into the computer later on at home.

“If someone who has never registered comes for food and doesn’t have an ID number, it’s okay,” he adds.  “We still give them a big bag of food, so they don’t leave emptyhanded.  We are unable to register new people at this time, however, because the Pantry is so small and our space for storing food is so limited.

“Because of the hardship created by this pandemic, more persons are coming on Saturday mornings who have not been here before, so the number of bags we give out has risen dramatically.  We gave out 60 last week.

“I give Tom a quarterly report noting how many boxes and how many bags we distributed.  We can then determine how many men, women, and children are served by Our Lady’s Pantry in total and on any given week, these demographics important for a variety of purposes.

Anita Bullaro cannot praise Mecsko enough.

“Registering families for food each week used to be so slow,” she says.  “Now we could do about 100 an hour, if we had to.  I used to spend hours every night going through new papers, taking our old, making copies for our two groups.  Everything is easier now.”

Mecsko only thought he was retiring from his technical work when he started working at Our Lady’s Pantry.  But his skill set turned out to be a special gift to this non-profit.

“Anita and I thank all of our volunteers, who help us in one way or another,” says director Tom Bullaro.  “Jim’s setting up this computer program for us, for example, has made everyone’s job easier.”