SPRINGFIELD — On a sunny Saturday morning, Lynn Ehmen pulls up in her Chrysler Pacifica van and does an immediate inspection of a micropantry tucked off Converse Avenue at Lanphier High School.
“There’s never been this much stuff in this pantry when I’ve been here,” said Ehmen, eyeing the wooden cabinet that was built by students at the Capital Area Career Center. “This is a lot.”
Ehmen begins spraying a disinfectant to clean the outside of the cabinet and then, using a sack of potatoes to prop a door open, goes through its contents, inspecting dates and labels.
“I’m no food expert ...” Ehmen said, setting a few cans to the side.
The micropantries have been springing up around the area as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, although the movement in the area isn’t new. Ehmen, a mother of four who normally would be teaching swim lessons at the YMCA, stumbled upon the Springfield Families Helping Families Facebook page and envisioned herself helping out.
Now Ehmen and a group of others raise funds through OpenWorld Relief, a nonprofit that responds to natural disasters around the world. Ehmen spends about $600 weekly on food and other supplies, though her contacts run deep, teaming recently, for instance, with Dot Foods in Mount Sterling.
“It’s the least contact, easiest way to get something,” Ehmen said. “You can come up and take what you need. That’s pretty much how it works.”
Stocking the shelves with everything from cleaning supplies to toiletries to crackers to dog and cat food, Ehmen makes her usual rounds, ending up at a micropantry outside the Bell Building on South Fifth Street, in plain sight of the governor’s mansion.
“There are a lot of people struggling,” Ehmen said later. “There’s help out there, but people don’t know how to access it. This is why this (movement) appeals to me, because of the accessibility of it.”
Stopping by the downtown micropantry, Roxxi Goodrich said she couldn’t believe her luck in finding some cleaning supplies and laundry detergent.
Soon Ehmen and another couple of women who had stopped by to drop off supplies were loading Goodrich down.
Macaroni and cheese?
“Always,” Goodrich said.
“Maybe a little sugar for the kids,” she countered.
Coffee and filters?
“It’s the little things that matter most,” Goodrich said, practically hugging her newfound goods.
Goodrich was born in Alton, grew up right down from Disneyland and moved to Central Illinois six months ago from Hawaii. Goodrich lives with her aunt and her aunt’s daughter’s two children, ages 6 and 8, and works at Star Graphics.
“It’s such a good community,” said Goodrich, about Springfield. “I feel like a regular person in this town. This is such a blessing.”
Kristina Moss stopped at the Lanphier micropantry to deliver some feminine hygiene products, toothbrushes and toothpaste and diapers.
“I want to help people, too,” Moss said. “Sometimes, I have to get food here. I’m not in a great position myself, but if I can help someone else, I’m going to help them.”
Moss has a 16-year-old and lost her job because of the pandemic. She’s also watching after her brother, William, who has had diabetes since he was a kid and suffers from kidney failure.
“Anything I think my brother can use, I set to the side and I take to him and his family,” said Moss, breaking down. “Everything else comes straight here. Every little bit helps and it’s appreciated.”
Ehmen admitted she spent the first couple of weeks of the crisis crying, thinking of all the important events people were missing out on and all the businesses affected.
Ehmen also has empathy for those looking for assistance. Growing up in Quincy, her family was often the recipient of food drives, especially after her father died when she was 12.
Ehmen said all of her kids help out. Peri, 19, makes spreadsheets to track who needs help. Ten-year-old Josie sews face masks. Sons Bennett, 17, and Rowan, 14, help carry and stack items.
Springfield Park District board president Leslie Sgro said she tries to fill up the micropantries several times a week with soap, paper towels, apples, lettuce “and whatever I can get my hands on,” she said.
“These people are at the end of their rope and this is a life preserver. It inspires me to try to do more.”
Sgro said she’s not surprised an idea like the micropantries sprung up here.
“I’ve always said Springfield is one of the most charitable places I’ve ever been,” Sgro said. “If there’s a need, people get together and fill it and I think this is just another example of that. I think it goes on all the time, it’s just less visible. This is the heart and soul of Springfield. It’s why I’m so passionate about the community and one of the many reasons I love living here.”
Kitty Moore said she met Ehmen a few weeks ago when she donated one of her mom’s cabinets to use as a micropantry. A week later, Moore was picking up her daughter, Makenzie, from work when her car ran out of gas.
Guess who she called?
“She was my guardian angel,” Moore said of Ehmen. “She’s like a mother to me now. She’s a good community helper.”
Moore, a hospice nurse, has driven her neighbor, Danielle Peebles, to a micropantry at Capital City Property Management in the 1500 block of S. MacArthur Blvd.
“It’s an excellent thing to help people out,” Moore said.
“I’ve made some hard and good friends from this,” Ehman said.