- Courtesy Of Thom Fleury
- Thom Fleury
For nearly eight years, Thom Fleury has operated a small weekend food pantry in Burlington's New North End. He started it in March 2013 when he realized that kids at C.P. Smith Elementary School, where Fleury then served as principal, could use some food on the weekends. On the first day, just three people showed up in the basement of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge on North Avenue.
The enterprise has grown exponentially over the years, fueled by the need resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Pantry usage exploded, with as many as 123 people visiting on a single day last spring.
"We don't take anybody's name. We don't ask them where they live," Fleury said. "We've had a number of people come who look embarrassed and awkward, and we just simply say, 'Grab a box and fill it right up.' We figure they come when they need it."
Things have slowed down slightly since the first few months of the pandemic, but Fleury said an average of 75 to 100 people stop in each weekend. During the warmer weather, he started to use a tent set up outside of the Heineberg Community Senior Center. Now, each Saturday and Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m., clothes and canned goods are available at the Odd Fellows Lodge. Fleury and volunteers hand out perishable items — milk, meat, bread and produce, much of which is donated by Hannaford supermarket — at Heineberg. Volunteers also give people $25 supermarket gift cards so they can choose their own items.
The community has pitched in, too. The North End Food Pantry usually raises $4,000 or so annually. In 2020, according to Fleury, it raised about $70,000. All of it came from individual donors and religious congregations, but for about $9,000 from the City of Burlington.
"I had two different cars pull up with outstretched hands, saying, 'Here,' and they handed me their $1,200 stimulus checks and said, 'I don't need this. Go ahead and take it,'" Fleury recalled.
Since 2013, the pantry has served more than 16,000 patrons, said Fleury, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of his 60 years.
"I just pass out what other people are donating," Fleury said. "It's a good way to give back to the community. People have been very good to me, and I want to show my appreciation to them. That's just what we do — we take care of each other as neighbors."