Last Monday, the Rutland Community Cupboard fed 99 people.
“We distributed over 1,200 items just yesterday,” Executive Director Rebekah Stephens, of Rutland, said during a quiet moment last Tuesday morning at the food shelf. “That’s normal.”
Stephens took over the organization — which provides food to individuals and families in Rutland, Wallingford, Killington, Clarendon and Shrewsbury with incomes at or less than 150% of the federal poverty level — in May. Since then, she has significantly expanded the variety of food available on a weekly basis and has gotten a new heating and cooling system installed.
“She’s very high energy and, I do believe that to be able to do that every day and lead that effort every day, you have to be very high energy as well as very compassionate,” said Tom Donahue, who, as executive direrector of BROC, frequently works with Stephens.
Stephens worked in various state and federal offices until her husband retired, when she took a year off to travel.
“While we were gone for the year, I did a lot of praying and trying to figure out where the Lord wanted me,” she said. “I want to leave the world a better place for having me in it.”
It was right around then, she said, that the position came open, with previous executive director Dan Warnecke taking a job at the United Way.
“The moment I walked in, I knew this was where I wanted to be, where I could do the most good for Rutland,” she said. “There’s a feeling of peace in this building when you come in it, that it’s a place of healing.”
Stephens said the cupboard was running well, but she still found things to tinker with.
“I did a lot of house cleaning,” she said. “We got the place painted.”
She also dealt with a long-running problem — the lack of air conditioning.
“When we get produce in the summer, it spoils pretty quickly,” said Scott Louiselle, chairman of the Community Cupboard’s board, adding that it was hard on the largely older volunteers as well. “I remember past directors going down this path and with the budget — $15,000 (for air conditioning) meant $15,000 less in food on the shelf.”
Louiselle said Stephens worked with Efficiency Vermont and local contractors to get heat pumps installed for a few hundred dollars. The devices provide more efficient heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.
“She came up with a plan that, with rebates, it essentially became a free system,” he said.
Stephens also found ways to improve operations. Clients were able to come in once a week for “commodity boxes” that typically consisted of four items. At a meeting with USDA officials, she said she learned that there were a lot of foodstuffs available that the cupboard wasn’t ordering. They went from four types of food available on a weekly basis to 21.
On top of that, Louiselle said Stephens helped beef up the organization’s annual fundraiser — a dinner where local celebrities serve as waiters — bringing in from $27,000 to $37,000 — a significant chunk of the cupboard’s roughly $140,000 budget.
Stephens said her focus is on building relationships, not just between the food shelf and donors or the food shelf and similar organizations, but between the food shelf and the people it serves as well.
“Sometimes, people come in and we’re the only contact they’ve had all day,” she said. “It’s all about relationships. We’re not just about feeding people’s stomachs. We’re about feeding them, mind, body and soul.”