Patti Cook sees her volunteer job at South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM) as that of a welcomer. “Hopefully I’m a friendly face or friendly voice on the phone when somebody first comes to SHIM. I want them to hear: ‘Come in, you’re welcome here. We’re here to help you.’”
Because of this attitude—and many other positive qualities—Cook received the Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board’s 2023 Community Service Award, given out annually to a Lebo resident who consistently volunteers their time to give back to the community. For more than 10 years, Cook has volunteered at SHIM, which runs food pantries at several locations for South Hills residents in need.
“Patti’s availability as a volunteer is a significant help to the SHIM staff,” according to Debi Dempsey, SHIM’s volunteer manager. “She sees tasks, takes them on, asks a few questions if necessary, and completes them on her own.”
In 2012 Cook, a retired teacher who lives on Highridge Circle with her husband, Bill, was looking for something to do with her time. She saw a notice in the bulletin of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills for a front desk receptionist and data entry volunteer, and stepped up.
“What I’ve done over the years is answer the door and the phone, which means greeting people and directing them to the staff person they need,” she said. “Sometimes it means accepting food donations, which can include giving directions, explaining what we take, and weighing food.”
Cook also records whatever donations come in and their source. “When a local company wants to make a donation, they need statistics—how many people are you helping, how many pounds of food are you giving away. So we track that. And whether it comes from the Pittsburgh Food Bank, local churches, Scout troops, or just a neighbor driving up and donating food.”
SHIM was founded more than 50 years ago as the South Hills Interfaith Ministry, a cooperative project among several places of worship. No longer sponsored by churches, it has grown into three locations that provide more than 3,700 people each month with food and personal care items. About 10 percent of the families served at the food pantry are Mt. Lebanon residents. Along with food pantries, its family center hosts family support, immigrant and refugee assistance, and youth programs. At the Bethel Park location are service coordinators who help with utility assistance, financial aid, transportation and self-sufficiency coaching.
Cook feels her work has a definite moral component. “The goal is to help people seeking help, whether it’s for food or mental health services, getting people in touch with all sorts of agencies.” She acknowledges the shame that is still sometimes associated with needing help and aims to dispel it.
“Usually once they get on the phone, they’re so glad to talk to someone. I try to listen and then tactfully refer them to the person who can help them. Sometimes people come in person and again, they’re almost apologizing for needing help. Really, it could be any of us. We could be only so many months away from losing a job or having a drastic illness, just so many reasons—we could all be in trouble.”
In addition to its food pantries, SHIM offers social services and referrals, tutoring and mentoring programs, and even a running club at its three locations.
Cook is also one of the volunteers who accompanies clients when they shop for food at the pantry. “The staff doesn’t have the time to stock the shelves or go through the food pantry with clients. That’s what the volunteers do: free up time for the staff to do what they’re trained to do and paid to do.”
During the pandemic, she helped as SHIM had to make the sudden shift from shopping in person to a drive-through pantry. The organization struggled to preserve an element of choice in the food selection.
“They’d do a drive-through where some items were already prepared in bags or boxes, and then volunteers would say, ‘Today we have chicken or ground beef,’ and they could make a choice. Or they could choose between macaroni and spaghetti if they wanted pasta. Later on, they could even get out of the car and go up to the produce table and tell the volunteers what they wanted.”
Cook feels that SHIM is important as a huge safety net. “It’s a really safe place for people to go when they need help,” she reported. “I can’t say enough about what the staff does there. Ideally SHIM wouldn’t be needed, but it is desperately needed. I think most people in the South Hills area, if it disappeared, would be amazed at what a loss it would be for people who are struggling.”
Rachel White, SHIM’s development and communication assistant, nominated Cook for the award. “We work with such a group of diverse individuals here and people can sometimes be uncomfortable asking for help,” she said. “Patti’s warmth emanates from her, and she helps put clients at ease as she assists them. We work hard to destigmatize suburban poverty in order to reach neighbors in need, and Patti does a wonderful job of treating everyone with dignity and respect.”