Building a Bridge for Families in Need

Left to right: The Bridge Pantry Chair Fred Lehmkuhl, Executive Director John Leikness, and WCI Program Director Wendy Merrick pose in front the The Bridge's mobile pantry that brings food to the communities of Richville, Ottertail, Dent and Vergas.

You may not be able to tell from its unassuming warehouse-style exterior, but The Bridge Community Pantry (formerly known as the Perham Food Shelf) is getting a makeover. It started with its mission, and then its name. 

Led by Rich McCrady six years ago, the board established four initiatives: human resources and operations, public relations/marketing, outreach, and facilities. 

The Outreach Initiative tackled how to better serve the neighboring towns of Richville, Ottertail, Dent, and Vergas by launching a mobile pantry. So the name “Perham Food Shelf” just didn’t match their reach anymore. 

“Then we rebranded as The Bridge Community Pantry, as part of the Public Relations/Marketing Initiative, because we’re bridging all these small communities,” explained John Leikness, Executive Director. 

The pantry itself was running out of room, so the the Facilities Initiative handled that. The Perham Lions who were instrumental in getting the current building constructed generously agreed to vacate their half. This allowed The Bridge to double in size. The current board of directors, led by Chair Fred Lehmkuhl, is guiding the expansion effort.

The entire building is now under renovation not only to better serve clients but also to store the Mobile Pantry unit. 

The Bridge was able to use a $5,000 WCI Community Change Makers grant to help with the expansion.

Mission-driven

Back to that mission. “We believe all people experience times of need in life,” it reads. “The Bridge provides a temporary food source for families and individuals, in an environment of respect, caring and optimism.” 

Leikness and the 40-plus volunteers he leads take that mission to heart.

“Everyone who enters the Bridge Pantry is considered a guest,” Leikness said. “We always introduce the volunteer to the guest because the guest is the most important person.”

From the moment they walk through the door, a volunteer greets them and walks them through the aisles where the guests get to choose their own items.

Leikness and The Bridge volunteers understand that sometimes people have a hard time making ends meet. Maybe they are new to the community and need help to tide them over until their first paycheck. Maybe expenses have piled up. Maybe something unforeseen has happened. It doesn’t really matter. The Bridge is there to help take some of the worry out of their lives.

Last year, The Bridge served 533 families. These families made 2,119 visits. Families can visit once per month if needed but most do not. “Our experience is that families used the pantry when the need arises and not unnecessarily.” 

Along with the rows of canned and dry goods, there are freezers with meat and other frozen items. In the summer months, a farm-to-food-shelf program helped them provide 198,000 pounds of fresh produce to their guests and the general public. In the reception area, there are books for children to read while waiting, donated knitted hats for cold winter days, and seed packets available during the growing season.

The Bridge uses North Country Food Bank as its main source of food. It allows them to stretch a dollar five to seven times its worth. 

Leikness also cited the incredible generosity of residents. There are collection spots in grocery stores and local businesses make regular food donations. Churches, businesses, service organizations and individuals generously donate allowing The Bridge to complete its mission. 
“In these towns, it’s the people of the community who get it done,” Leikness said.

A strategic investment

WCI’s Director of Programs Wendy Merrick sees The Bridge as an example of WCI’s new strategic plan in motion. “The Bridge does so much more than meet a basic need for food. It models neighborliness—which is a core value of WCI—and inspires being in relationship with each another—within communities, between communities, and across the region.”

Learn more about WCI’s strategic plan at wcif.org/strategic-plan.html