Our Lady’s Pantry working closely with Operation Veterans Connect to better serve our vets.

Our Lady’s Pantry has been open for 22 years to help fight hunger among our neighbors, according to Tom Bullaro.

Bullaro, who is the co-director of Our Lady’s Pantry, along with his wife Anita, explained that a few years ago, the Pantry started working with Seniors in Service (SIS), a non-profit group in Tampa.  This group specializes in connecting people over age 55 with non-profits in surrounding counties, to make a difference and change lives through community service.  Since then, SIS volunteers have been coming to our Pantry every week to help in our work.

Then, recently, Glarisol Traspalacios, from SIS, contacted Bullaro to tell him about Operation Veterans Connect (OVC), a program under the umbrella of SIS.  Traspalacios is the program manager of OVC.  The mission of this group, which includes volunteers over the age of 19, is to connect veterans, active militaries, and their families to community resources.  Through this connection, veterans can increase their knowledge about their benefits, have access to care, and engage veterans in assisting their fellow veterans through volunteer service.

“We hope to identify more veterans in need who visit the Pantry,” said Traspalocios.

“We are thrilled to learn about OVC and work with them in this capacity,” said Bullaro.  “Until now, we never had a special program dedicated to helping former military men and women among our clients.

“Starting about a month ago, when clients come for food, Anita asks them if they are military,” said Bullaro.  “With the help of Jim Mecsko, the Pantry’s computer specialist, we identify them as such in our computer.

"Anita and Jim really made this happen," Bullaro added.

“Now we can go that extra mile to help these vets, a few of whom have no place to live and no food.  OVC is helping them to find housing and food.  OVC is doing fantastic work and we are so pleased to help identify these veterans who come to the Pantry.”

To facilitate the process of working with one another to help our vets, representatives from Volunteer Florida, SIS AmeriCorps OVC members, and Our Lady’s Pantry met on April 5 to share individual backgrounds, along with their passion for helping others less fortunate than themselves.

11 men and women lined up outside the food pantry

Working together to care for our veterans

The meeting began with Karen Indiano and Jim Mecsko, who are both Pantry volunteers, describing the Pantry’s overall process of securing, storing, and distributing food on Saturday mornings.  Mecsko then described the software program he uses to register clients.  This program enables him to identify the veterans who are our Pantry clients, which information he then can share with OVC.

Corey Simon, the CEO of Volunteer Florida, then explained the mission of this federal agency, established in 1994 to help solve community problems.  In the State of Florida, for example, this agency administers programs such as AmeriCorps, whose members also were at this meeting.

After Simon retired from eight seasons in the National Football League, he shifted his focus to philanthropic work.  This focus led to his leadership position in Volunteer Florida.  Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Simon CEO of this group in 2020.

“This is the Commission that manages volunteers,” Simon explained.  “We visit the different organizations that we fund.”

In addition to learning about the work of each group, SIS AmeriCorps OVC members and others shared something about their backgrounds.  Each person also spoke of his or her passion for helping others less fortunate than themselves.

Simon told several personal stories and then addressed the group.

“You will never know the impact of trusting God, and reaching out and being present, and adding some type of joy or resources to the lives of those in need,” he said.  “TV won’t talk about serving others.  And social media won’t show the love and passion for people.  The fact that you are willing to step up and reach out means a lot to me.”

Several AmeriCorps OVC members — who are military or from military families — also shared moving stories about why they continue to serve others.  Their life of service, they say, is intended “to make a difference in someone’s life,” and “give back to the community.”

“Working here at Our Lady’s Pantry allows us to think about others and not about ourselves.”

AmeriCorps OVC member Hortencia Frances, for example, is retired Army after serving in the Middle East, Belgium, and other countries.  Frances works at the Pantry on Tuesdays and Fridays doing whatever needs to be done.

On Saturdays, however, she works the registration desk with Anita, personally meeting the clients who come for food.

Frances finds this work especially “heartwarming,” she said.  “People start coming here at 5:45 a.m.  Many of them tell me that if it was not for us, they wouldn’t have anything to eat.

“’I don’t have enough food,’ they tell me.

“’Thank you.’

“’God bless you for what you do.’”

Then Anita told the story of how she and Tom came to find Our Lady's Pantry in 2004, when they moved here from Pennsylvania.  They have been working here ever since.  Tom missed most of the meeting because the Pantry truck was on the road picking up food from markets throughout the county, and Tom is a driver.

Anita also described how the Pantry has grown in recent years and is continuing to expand, serving hundreds of clients every week.

Finally, Chris Noble, SIS community manager for Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas Counties said he was inspired listening to the testimonials of all who had gone before him.

“Getting people engaged in service is so inspiring,” he said.

Then, looking at Anita, he told the group, “I visit three counties in my work, and this is one of the best-run pantries in Tampa Bay.

“You make a difference in people’s lives.”

Robin Ingles, CEO of Seniors in Service, who also was present, said she was honored to partner with the Pantry in this effort.  “We want to expand and continue to grow.

“Let us know how we can help,” she said.

By the end of April, Our Lady’s Pantry had identified 85 veterans among our clients.  Many of these vets had visited the Pantry more than once during that month.  In the month of April, for example, we assisted 181 veterans over a five-week period.  In addition, AmeriCorps-OVC member Scott Harvey has been delivering bags and other foods and beverages to 10 veterans off-site, after the Pantry closes each Saturday.

To learn more about Volunteer Florida, Seniors in Service, AmeriCorps, or Operation Veterans Connect, please visit the following Web sites:

New volunteers are always welcome at Our Lady's Pantry.  Please come any Tuesday, Friday, or Saturday morning if you wish to lend a hand.  And thank you.