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Special Report: Homelessness in North Kingstown (Combating the problem requires a personal touch)

May 3, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN—Bonnie Smith stands inside the small, cramped space of the North Kingstown Food Pantry with a determined look on her face.
As signs of spring blossoms throughout the neighborhood around her, Smith works as quickly as possible in a dark office building so the pantry can provide local families with food and paper supplies.
Smith says demand for service is greater than ever.
“I can’t give you an accurate percentage but I would say it’s probably at least 80-90 percent higher than it was a year ago at this point,” Smith says.
In the 30 years since the food pantry opened, the demand has done “nothing but grow” according to Smith and here, in this closet-size space located next door to North Kingstown United Methodist Church on Boston Neck Road, the issue of homelessness is confronted.
On the shelves of the food pantry, all types of canned goods and vegetables, pastas and sauces, cereals and paper products wait for families in need.
A small refrigerator stores various meats purchased “when they go on sale.”
A handful of volunteers comes to the pantry each week to see what needs to be done, whether it’s taking inventory or providing transportation to families the pantry helps. Nearly as soon as the shelves are full, they seem to be empty again.
“We’re not government -involved at all; we have no town support in itself but we have community support and that has been how we’ve done it,” Smith explains.
At the NK Food Pantry, it’s not about the numbers or the trends. Homelessness here is more than a trendy subject examined in such recent publications as the Kids Count Fact Book.
“Basically, what the food pantry does is supply a week’s worth of groceries,” Smith says. “It’s an on-call service; we don’t ask for any kind of verification of age or income level. If they call, obviously they need food.”
Smith is among a handful of local residents battling homelessness.
What she does isn’t for credit.
“It’s part of what I am,” she says. “I’ve done it for so long it’s very much a part of what I feel I want to do. It’s not that I have to do it: there are others. I could probably walk away at this point and it would take care of itself but I like the personal touch.”
June Mrozek is, in many ways, exactly like Bonnie Smith.
As the founder of Reach Out From the Heart to the Community, a charity partly supported by sales from a thrift store located at 7760 Post Road, Mrozek is in constant contact with local teachers and schools, identifying children in need.
“What we do here really is just try to provide a support system for the teachers,” Mrozek says. “We have provided children with winter clothing and pajamas and Christmas toys; sometimes Thanksgiving dinner.”
Like the NK Food Pantry, Reach Out is a program relying entirely on volunteers.
“We’re not connected to anything in the town; we are completely separate,” Mrozek notes. “We are volunteers. We are not town employees. We are not social workers.” Mrozek’s foray into helping needy children began years ago.
Working with charities during Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mrozek concluded that if families needed her help around the holidays, it stood to reason they needed help throughout the rest of the year as well.
“We asked ourselves what could we do? to help these families.”
At first, Mrozek recalls, she met resistance.
“In the beginning they thought we were crazy. They said ‘What are you doing? It’s just too much work’”.
Once Mrozek partnered with the owner of 7760 Post Road, however, everything took shape.
“Had it not been for him, I wouldn’t be here,” she states “He was really on board and he helped us tremendously—still to this day—and he is the reason that we are able to do this.”
Besides manning the thrift shop, Mrozek corrals donations from local families and, when an agency comes to her with a child or family in need, she’s able to supply help.
“The state will come to us and say they’ve got a North Kingstown family who is in need of a bed or sheets and towels or warm clothing for the children,” Mrozek says as an example. “It’s the simple things that we can provide.”
Perhaps what’s most surprising is Mrozek’s desire to stay under the radar.
“We do this very quietly,” she says. “It’s just a group of us who want to help these children.”
If she doesn’t want attention, why does she do it?
“Because there’s a need and they’re children and if not us then who?” she asks. Throughout the year, Reach Out has several different campaigns going on.
In August, the center puts together a backpack drive. Last year, with the help of the People’s Credit Union, Reach Out collected 106 backpacks filled with all the necessary classroom supplies for local school children.
In September, it’s a book drive. In October and November, it’s a pajama drive. When Christmas comes, the center provides toys and warm clothing.
Right now, Reach Out is in the midst of collecting donations as part of philanthropist Alan Shawn Feinstein’s matching-grant food challenge. Eventually, those donations will find their way to Bonnie Smith and the NK Food Pantry.
But the program helps families in many quiet ways.
In emergencies, agencies refer families to Reach Out where Mrozek provides clothing and housewares.
The common thread of such programs as the North Kingstown Food Pantry and Reach Out is the altruism of its workers.
“Everybody has a gift and everyone has something to give,” Mrozek states. “Everyone. That’s my goal here—to include the people who want to help. Obviously, not everyone can give in that way but for people who can, everyone has something to give.”

This is the final installment of a four-part series exploring the issue of homelessness in North Kingstown.
The first three parts, which can be viewed on our website at www.ricentral.com, focused on the rise of homelessness in North Kingstown, the ways in which the Suzanne M. Henseler Quidnessett Elementary School attempts to combat the problem and profiled the CrossRoads Family Housing complex, specifically, its role in helping those affected by homelessness find a path to success.

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