In the community

Vale Food Pantry Manager Connie Ussing keeps the focus on people and her community

VALE – Connie Ussing decided she needed something to do.

Her husband, John, had recently passed away. Focused on her children but grappling with the sudden absence of her partner, she looked around for a way to volunteer in the community.

She decided to help out the Vale Food Pantry. Her decision to volunteer there nearly 19 years ago proved fortuitous for her and the community.

Ussing’s volunteer role evolved and in about 2008 she became the food pantry manager. She’s been at the helm of the small food center since and said she has not a single regret.

“I learned this is a wonderful place to be,” said Ussing.

The Vale Food Pantry is in the midst of change. For more than 20 years the pantry handed out food from the basement of the old Vale city hall. Yet the city listed the building as surplus in February and plans to sell it.

The search for a new home for the pantry kicked into high gear in February.

The food pantry is closing in on a deal to take over the former Lienkaemper Funeral Chapel at 222 Yakima St. S., now vacant.

For Connie Ussing, Vale Food Pantry manager, the people who come for help are the key part of her volunteer work. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

Ussing said the pantry is still working out the details to acquire the building but she is hopeful the food center will relocate there.

“That is still our plan but this is a time of change,” she said.

Using said the pantry will seek grants along with donations to help propel the pantry if it moves to a new location.

Ussing said she isn’t worried about the dedication of her volunteers as the pantry prepares to move.

“We are all from sturdy farm stock and we will do what it takes to keep it open,” she said.

Ussing said the property deal would give the food pantry an accessible “nice building.”

“It will be nice if we can invite other agencies in there,” said Ussing.

She said the pantry’s long-range plans include creating partnership with other agencies – such as Community in Action in Ontario – to offer a wide range of services.

Her volunteer position means that twice a week – Tuesdays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Thursday’s from noon to 3 p.m. – she oversees the distribution of food to people in need. Ussing and the other volunteers guide people through the pantry, handing out food and other items such as books, DVDs and toiletries.

Ussing, 74, said she realized not long after she first volunteered the key to the food bank is people.

“It is just so interesting to find out people’s strengths,” she said.

Connie Ussing, Vale Food Pantry manager, walks to give a local resident an empty box to store food in, Thursday, March 21. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

The generosity of the community is another lesson.

“Sometimes it is the people who don’t have the money who are the most willing to come down to help,” she said.

She said people want to help their neighbors.

“Everything you do is going to have its reward down the line,” said Ussing.

The camaraderie of the volunteers is also a highlight for Ussing.

“We laugh and joke and it is really enjoyable. There is no chance to be lonely,” said Ussing.

Ussing, who grew up in Weiser, said she always wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a nurse. After high school, Ussing became a licensed practical nurse.

“I worked at Pioneer Place as a night shift supervisor for many years and then at the (Malheur County) health department as a visiting LPN,” said Ussing.

Ussing and her husband settled on a dairy outside of Vale. She still lives on the farm, though it is no longer a dairy.

Ussing said her two disabled children and the food pantry keep her busy.

She said the pantry provides a crucial service but those who seek food are often “not at their best time in life.”

“They are just not out of food but out of money and options,” said Ussing.

Ussing said one highlight to her tenure at the food pantry was helping others find employment.

“We’ve had several people come and work for a while then get a job because we can give them a letter of recommendation,” said Ussing.

The pantry is all about fellowship, said Ussing.

“For everybody who is lonely, this is a good place to be. We are not lonely because we are here,” said Ussing.

Ussing said one of her most treasured memories is the expression on the face of someone who arrives at the pantry for the first time in search of help.

“They come in and get a cartload of food and they are so impressed and in tears,” said Ussing.

Ussing understands, though. She’s been there.

“When we were milking cows, we frequently didn’t have any food money at the end of the month. I know what it feels like to not have food, or to at least make do with whatever is there,” said Ussing.

Last week, Ussing was busy helping a senior citizen through the food pantry and showed her items of food. She then carefully put the food into the woman’s shopping cart.

Then Ussing helped the woman out of the pantry, up the driveway, to her vehicle. There she unloaded the items into the woman’s trunk.

For Ussing, the Vale Food Pantry work was never about financial reward.

“There are bigger rewards than money,” said Ussing.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Vale Food Pantry scrambling to find a new home as city mulls selling old city hall building

Local food pantries see a rise in the number of people seeking assistance

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