Youthful energy and friendships forged through the Eugene Family YMCA soon will help alleviate food insecurity for members of the community thanks to the efforts of a young woman in south Eugene.
The work of Naomi Saenger, 16, kicked off Eugene Family YMCA's first Week of Gratitude, which looks to spread appreciation, kindness and inspiration to the community.
Last spring, Saenger began volunteering with Burrito Brigade. The nonprofit organization has provided food to the hungry and unhoused in Eugene since 2014.
As she worked to distribute food through the brigade’s many programs, she said she was shocked by the overwhelming need she witnessed. “I started restocking the group’s Little Free Pantries and I was seeing that every week they were completely cleaned out. It was really eye opening that my community was so in need of free food.”
Burrito Brigade’s “Waste to Taste” program, which collects and distributes food from groceries that would otherwise go to waste, has been so overwhelmed with requests the year that it implemented a wait list for people seeking food.
To help, Saenger decided to explore creating her own Little Free Pantry. Initially, she planned to set it up at her school, but the pandemic shutdown lead her to seek another location.
Saenger grew up at the Y, swimming there since she was 7 years old. She thought the location would make a good plan B. Her timing was good. Officials at the Y were in the midst of planning the Week of Gratitude, which runs through Friday, Nov. 20 and recognized the pantry would be a natural fit, according to spokesperson Beth Casper.
With a location secured, Saenger recruited classmates Donovan Phelps and Finn Frazier to build the box and Y staff reached out to artist and longtime Y member Sophie Navarro Matchett, 48, to paint it. Navarro Matchett, from Junction City, teaches art classes at the Y off and on and had just moved into a work space in the Galleria at the Smith in Eugene.
She jumped at the chance to help with the project.
“I want to include the values of the Y, diversity, inclusion and gratitude,” said Navarro Matchett, as she prepared to spend Thursday evening finishing up the project in time for a weekend installation.
The exterior of the pantry will incorporate an urban landscape with people, coffee shops and multi-story apartments on one side and flowers with blue sky on the other.
Once ready to go, “donating to the box will be super easy,” Saenger said. “Just drive up and add any non-perishable food item or anything else you might find in your own pantry.”
“I know that the community at the Y is very strong,” Saenger said, as she watched her idea come to life. “I really believe the community will be able to embrace this pantry and make it a vital resource for families in need.”
The Y's Gratitude Week will continue despite the Y's two-week closure starting Wednesday, in response to Gov. Kate Brown's order. In addition to the unveiling of the pantry, other events will include a Garden of Gratitude through Friday, in which the community is invited to add words of gratitude to a garden in front of the building and take time to reflect on gratitude remotely with Y yoga instructor Sarah Finney.