“This is a community of …” “GENEROSITY,” exclaims Samantha Vosters with volunteers and guests, called “shoppers,” as they gather on Saturday mornings at the old St. Casimir School — now part of the parish of Our Lady of Divine Providence — at 924 E. Clarke Street. Vosters serves as the Volunteer and Intern Program Coordinator for the Riverwest Food Pantry, an important resource for local Milwaukee neighborhoods, including Riverwest and Harambee.

Established in the late 1970s as an initiative of the East Side Housing Action Committee, the Riverwest Food Pantry has served tens of thousands of needy and at-risk community members through its outreach programs at Our Lady of Divine Providence and Gaenslen Public School (1250 E. Burleigh Street).

In 2012, Riverwest Food Pantry expanded its outreach, incorporating other programs under the leadership of Vincent Noth, a parishioner of Our Lady of Divine Providence.  “What has animated us as an organization from the beginning is the power food has to be an entry point to connect with people in poverty, in hopes of changing lives and walking with a community toward health and well-being.”

The mission of Riverwest Food Pantry relies on the generosity of benefactors and the dozens of volunteers who offer their time and energy each week, building community and accompanying poor members of the community through practical works of mercy. A new initiative by the leadership at Riverwest Food Pantry is helping to incorporate young adults into this mission.

“There is a deep hunger in our world for community, a hunger among young people to rediscover neighborhood and reimagine parish life,” Noth said. “The initial group of us who drew together did so to learn from those in poverty, to draw strength from shared common life and to embrace as much as is possible the rich prayer tradition of the church.”

Guided by these values, Riverwest Food Pantry has created a live-in intern program for young adults, placing them in houses within the neighborhoods they serve. “The result in our parish has been a growing community of young people who come together to pray and serve the poor. But, the need in Milwaukee is so great.” Noth continued. “There is nothing better than a life of sacrifice amidst deep relationships of love and service to God.”

These are the values that Samantha Vosters hopes to instill in the six, full-time interns currently serving in the Riverwest Food Pantry. The interns, who come from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, all receive room and board, as well as a small, monthly stipend. While these interns live in community — in separate houses for men and women —their lives and ministry are firmly rooted in Catholic Social Teaching.

“Anything that is dealing with the dignity of a person,” Vosters said, “at the end of the day, that’s Catholic social thought. Everyone is created in the image and likeness of God, so how are we preserving and upholding that dignity? The way that we do things at the food pantry, is very much ‘how are we going to have the most dignified response for people?’”

The Riverwest Food Pantry’s “Choice Program,”  which allows their clients to choose the food options that are best for their family, as opposed to receiving a pre-selected assortment of food items based on family size, supports human dignity by allowing clients to choose what they want and what their families need. Beyond this, the volunteers and interns are brought together in an environment where, as Vosters said, “Everyone gives and everyone receives. It is a community of generosity. No matter how rich you are, you have something to give, and no matter how poor you are, you have something to offer. This is the heart
of the Gospel.”

Quoting Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church in modern world, Vosters shared a guiding principle in her work with the interns: “Man … cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” (§ 24). Vosters continued, “People are here to give, and they are really finding themselves. For the interns, the more they give themselves to the mission, they are coming to know, more deeply the joy of God in their lives.”

To help the interns reflect on their experiences, opportunities are provided for theological reflection, intercessory prayer, Eucharistic adoration, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass. “The only way our work can be fruitful,” Vosters said, “is if it’s flowing from God and going
back to him.”

In the end, Vosters notes, quoting Fyodor Dostoevsky, “‘Love in action’ is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’ But ‘love in action’ is what we long for, along with deep and radical service.”

To learn more about the Riverwest Food Pantry and the intern program, visit riverwestfoodpantry.org.