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Community Care CEO Heather Anne Kaesgen was named the organization’s head in the middle of the pandemic.

NORTH RIDGEVILLE

One obvious question for Community Care CEO Heather Anne Kaesgen regards the level of need for the private service group’s help since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Has that need increased?

“Of course, it sure has,” was Kaesgen’s answer.

North Ridgeville Community Care is primarily a food pantry. While a few area churches operate small food pantries, Community Care is the only dedicated food pantry in North Ridgeville. For those in need, the organization also can provide help with such monthly necessities as utility bills.

“We are just generally helping the unfortunate in North Ridgeville,” Kaesgen said. “What we’ve noticed is that food insecurity is at an all-time high for people who have never had it for their entire lives.”

Community Care is helping about 750 people a month. That is roughly 100 more than the pre-pandemic monthly number.

The organization is seeing lots of clients who never visited a food pantry in the past, Kaesgen said.

The biggest increase is in the number of older adults looking for help, Kaesgen said. She believes she knows the reason. During the pandemic, the government increased the maximum dollar amount of SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) available to families. Older adults are not eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“They are living on Social Security,” Kaesgen said. “But if you've been grocery shopping lately you’ve noticed that food prices have went up… So, we had this influx of older adults and persons in their 40s and 50s, who had made it in the past, but now when food costs are up something like 20%, they can’t make ends meet.”

Kaesgen gets to know some of her clients personally. Six regular clients have died since the beginning of the pandemic. Kaesgen makes it a point to call some of her older clients.

“Some of them have literally not talked to people in weeks,” she said.

Despite an increased need for aid, donations to the food pantry also have spiked, Kaesgen said.

“People have been so generous,” she said. “I am so proud of our community for pulling together and truly taking care of their neighbors.”

At the start of the pandemic, Kaesgen said there was worry donations would not meet increased need.

“We feared money was going to be tight, food was going to be tight and this all happened so quickly,” Kaesgen said. “In March when everything shut down, we kind of looked around and said, ‘Now what?’”

As it turned out, the donations began pouring into Community Care.

“It really warmed my heart because people were being so generous,” Kaesgen said, adding she believes in the axiom that while we are all caught in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat.

“Some boats are obviously bigger than others,” she said. “But the ones in the bigger boats, the ones whose financial situation has not changed, they came out with donations day after day after day.”

Those donations include both money and food. Many people don’t realize, Kaesgen said, that Community Care buys a major portion of its food from the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio. Kaesgen estimated her organization currently hands out 30,000 pounds of food monthly. Half comes from Second Harvest, the other half from donations.

Many of those donations come from the local businesses such as Trader Joe’s, Giant Eagle and Panera.

“Fortunately, we have never run out of food, never run out of money,” Kaesgen said.

She jokingly adds the organization never even ran out of toilet paper.

More seriously, Kaesgen states Community Care does supply toilet paper and other items such as hand sanitizer and laundry soap and many other items that cannot be bought with SNAP benefits. Those benefits cannot be used to purchase taxable, nonfood items.

Pre-pandemic, clients visiting the food bank received about a week’s worth of food and other items. Visits are limited to twice monthly.

“What we notice now is some people are afraid to shop,” Kaesgen said.

That fear applies especially in the case of older clients. In response to that situation and other factors, Community Care now offers clients enough food and items to last the two weeks between their eligible visits.

“Some of our seniors won’t even go to the store,” Kaesgen said. “They completely rely on us.”

Community Care now operates under a drive-through only, contact-free pickup system. Masks are required.

Pre-pandemic, the organization had some 85 volunteers, many older adults. But because of the pandemic, no one safely can be in the building. So family members handle most of the volunteer duties.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kaesgen figures she has been working about 18 hours a day.

Community Care opened in 1989. Kaesgen, 47, joined the organization seven years ago, becoming CEO in October.

“It’s been a trying time,” she said. “But it’s also been a time of growth.”

North Ridgeville Community Care is at 34015 Center Ridge Road. The phone number is 440-353-9716. For emergency help, Community Care suggests you call North Ridgeville police at 440-327-2191. You may visit Community Care online at www.nrcommcare.org.

Contact this reporter at tcorrigan@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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