ONT Executive Director Lyndsey Haight sat down with Dot to hear about her experiences as a guest and volunteer at Our Neighbors’ Table.
LH: What brought you to ONT for help?
Dot: I was going through a divorce and it took 3 years to start receiving child support. I was working a 30-hr/week job and had a daughter that had special medical needs that prohibited me from getting a second job. Friends helped me out a lot but they are not an unlimited resource and they have their own lives and needs to worry about.
One day it came down to either putting gas in my car to get to work or buy food.
LH: How did you find ONT?
Dot: I have two teenage kids. They had volunteered for ONT as part of their school. We lived in Amesbury so we were aware of the organization.
LH: What was it like to come to ONT for the first time?
Dot: I was so ashamed. I felt so humiliated on the drive over. I come from Manchester, MA, where people don’t think about getting help or the possibility of needing help. A lot of people were saying 'you should be getting a second or third job' but that wasn’t a possibility for me.
The day I came to ONT, I walked in and met Lori [ONT’s Pantry Director]. She chatted with me about regular things, like I had just met her in the grocery store. She treated me like a normal human being. After that, I left with my head held high. I felt like I left with my dignity intact – on my way over I felt like I was losing it by asking for help.
LH: How often did you use the programs at ONT for help?
Dot: I came to the pantry every Saturday for close to a year and then once in a while when things got tight.
LH: How did it make a difference for you?
Dot: Just to know that there was food in the cabinet to make a meal and to be able to feed my children a nutritious meal. I have type 1 Diabetes so it meant a lot to be able to come and get wholesome food and meat. It’s important for me to eat quality food to control my diabetes so that I can take care of myself and, as a result, take care of my kids. As money got tighter, the food I had to choose at the grocery store was the “cheaper” more processed food, not really what we should be eating.
Coming to ONT didn’t eliminate our financial constraints, but the meat we could get and the holiday meal program made a big difference. Knowing that if I was going to someone’s house for the holiday and could actually bring something to share, a pie or a dish – like a normal person – meant a lot to me.
LH: Can you talk a little about your experiences here at ONT?
Dot: I was standing in line and the woman in front of me was an attorney with three small children and a sick husband. She had lost her job. She never expected to be wanting for anything. But life circumstances happen – they can happen to anyone.
I had to put my pride in the back seat. I was raised that you don’t ask for help; that it’s the worst thing to ask for help. It was actually healing for me to be able to ask for help and to leave with my pride and dignity intact.
I came for the holiday program once and saw two women I knew well from town. I couldn’t come in; I made my sister come and get my food. The parent of my son’s friend was volunteering here. I didn’t want to come when she was here, and then I found out that they come here too.
LH: Did your children know you were using a food pantry?
Dot: At the time, my son was 14 and daughter was 17. They knew what our financial situation was like. It’s in the little things every day. We rented an apartment and got fuel assistance, so when the weather got cold, I’d tell them to put on another sweater.
They knew I had to come to ONT for help. We talked about it before I came; I told them I needed to get help. I usually tried to come by myself but sometimes they would wait in the car. After some time, they actually felt a little excited each time I came home with bags of food – digging through the bags to see what I got. There seemed to be a sense of relief – a bit different from their reactions when I came home from the grocery store. They loved making grilled cheese with the bread and cheese I got.
My son, now 16, was doing a psych project for school and said he almost misses being financially strapped because it made him appreciate the little things – things he doesn’t have to worry about now.
LH: Where are you today?
Dot: Today I am happily remarried. We have a joint income that supports our family. When we were dating, even though he wanted to take care of us, I still came here. I didn’t want to rely on him. I have a job I love at the NH SPCA. And now I can give back. It means a lot to give back at Our Neighbors’ Table.
It’s such a relief to be able to sleep at night and not worry about where our next meal is coming from.
LH: Why do you want to share your story?
Dot: I want people to not be afraid to ask for help. Everyone goes through it in one form or another. That energy you’re expending – that feeling of terror to think that you won’t be able to eat – you can focus that energy on working and changing your situation, or to focus on enjoying time with your children, it takes the joy out of your life, getting this help helps you put that joy back into your life and not focus all your energy on trying to dig out of this hole.
I used to have a nice house; we used to go on vacations. I used to go to Plum Island to go birding or go up to North Conway to hike. But that’s gas that is otherwise getting me to work. You realize all those little things that you once had in your day-to-day life. Then to realize you can’t stop at Dunkin’s for the $2 coffee because it meant taking food out of my kids’ mouths. Your life starts to shrink.
It was so all-consuming. I was making $19,000 a year so a cup of coffee was a luxury. When everyone at the office is pitching in to get pizza and they stop asking you because they know you don’t have the money – you really feel bad about yourself. There's a ripple effect of how it affects your life.
LH: What would you want to say to someone debating looking for help?
Dot: You shouldn’t be afraid. You will be treated with an enormous amount of dignity. The relief is worth the anxiety you felt in deciding to come. And you will leave with your dignity. Everyone can fall on hard times and usually it’s temporary. It’s important to know there’s something to help you during that time.
LH: What would you say to someone who currently supports our programs?
Dot: With just an item or two, you’re making a big difference. Never underestimate the impact of one person. Taking a moment to buy a couple of healthy items allows people to have good choices – it’s so easy yet such a nurturing gesture. For someone to walk in and be able to pick up the brand of pasta they would normally buy if they could, gives such relief to that guest. Just that one item can give that person that feeling of normalcy in an otherwise very difficult time.
It was a big deal to get a big tube of toothpaste. The toiletries were a big deal. You think about needing food, but you don’t think about shampoo and soap until you realize you can’t afford them.
Growing up in an Italian family, I was immersed in the culture of food. I believe that good food is more than just sustenance. Food unites us all as human beings. Food is a common thread and a significant part of our culture. Mom taught me the importance of good food and nutrition and how important bringing the family together around the dining table was to our culture. For people with scarce economic resources, a regular source of nutritious food at little or no cost is a tremendously vital component of their existence.
My mom, Angeline, was a wonderful cook, and a great collector of recipes. As part of my work as Executive Director of the Amesbury and Merrimac Housing Authorities, I published a regular newsletter for our residents and would always include some of Mom’s recipes on the back page, under the heading The Recipe Lady. The residents loved these recipes, not only because they were delicious, but because they used common, inexpensive ingredients and seasonings – perfect for anyone on a budget who loves great food.
I was introduced to Our Neighbors' Table during my tenure at the housing authorities. Once I became aware of the mission and the good work that was being performed by ONT, I became a devotee. Our Neighbors' Table was a force of good that would assist our residents in a multitude of ways, not the least of which was to enhance “food security” by providing good nutrition, on a regular basis. Over the last decade, I have seen Our Neighbors’ Table expand its mission and outreach, even in the midst of difficult economic times for small charities. I get deeply involved in causes that I believe in, and Our Neighbors’ Table is one of my favorite charities.
My participation in Our Neighbor’s Table was so important to me before my mom passed away in 2014 at the age of 97; and now especially after her death, it is a way I can continue to honor her and stress those things that were very important to her.
To honor my mother and to keep her memory alive, I have put together the best of her recipes in a cookbook called, appropriately, The Recipe Lady. The initial run of the “The Recipe Lady” cookbook will be paid for in full by my family to honor this great lady. All of the proceeds will go directly to Our Neighbors’ Table. One of the single most important aspects of mom’s life was “La Famiglia” (the family). I am sure she would be very pleased to know that her recipe collection will benefit families in need and give them the opportunity to gather together each day around the dinner table with a wonderful meal to nourish their bodies, minds and spirit.
Working with charities is an American Tradition. For me, the most important contribution I can make is to assure that elders, the disabled, and especially families with children have access to good nutrition. It's getting back to the basics. And it's about staying local.