2017-06-23 / Front Page

Sybil Riemensnider:

Feeding the hungry free of charge for 20 years
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Sybil Riemensnider, 80, co-founder and executive director of the South Portland Food Cupboard, retiring after 20 years of unpaid volunteer service to the organization, is seen at the charity’s Thadeus Street facility. (Duke Harrington photo) Sybil Riemensnider, 80, co-founder and executive director of the South Portland Food Cupboard, retiring after 20 years of unpaid volunteer service to the organization, is seen at the charity’s Thadeus Street facility. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Sybil Riemensnider, who co-founded the South Portland Food Cupboard 20 years ago and has led it ever since, working unpaid full-time as its executive director, has decided to finally retire at age 80.

In recognition of her work, both the South Portland City Council and the Maine State Legislature issued proclamations in Riemensnider’s honor. It’s all been very heady stuff for the normally low-key menu maven. In a June 14 interview, she spoke with the Sentry about her decades of public service and the reaction to her imminent retirement at the end of June.

Q: Are you a South Portland native?

A: I’m from Massachusetts, but I lived in South Portland for 28 years after my husband and I retired. But now I live in Scarborough.

Q: What brought you to South Portland?

A: We both loved Maine. I grew up in a cottage on Lake Arrowhead and we wanted to live near the coast of Maine when we retired. We were both microbiologists. That’s how we met. I worked for the Shriners Hospital For Children in Boston and for later for a company that made products used in vaccines. We moved up here in 1983. We were living in Maryland at the time and found a great place in the Loveitt’s Field area. When we looked out our picture window we could see Portland Head Light and all the ships coming in. Well, that was it, the minute we walked in, we knew we were home, especially given that it was the same price as what we sold our condo for in Maryland. It was a great deal.

Q: What did you do in your early retirement years in the city?

A: I joined the Alzheimer’s Association – my father had the disease – and became very active there for about 10 years, becoming president of the board. I loved every minute at that. And I volunteered at the art museum in Portland, until I started the Food Cupboard.

Q: How did you come to help co-found the South Portland Food Cupboard?

A: We were part of a social justice and peace committee and once a year they would do a big collection for the food panties in Portland. Well, we thought, what about South Portland. So, we all went out and researched different pantries in the area. Everyone said, don’t worry about people over 40, they get Meals on Wheels. Well, we knew that wasn’t true – we know there were a lot of older people in South Portland who did indeed need help. I remember, one of the reasons we started it was that there was a woman who helped out with all the church suppers, a very lovely lady, and when she passed away they went into her apartment and found there wasn’t a stitch of food in the cupboards. So, we knew there was a problem. At that time, in 1997, older folks were having a real hard time being able to afford both food and their prescription medicines. But even the person who ran the general assistance program for the city at the time, he said, South Portland is such a blue collar town, we really don’t need a food pantry. But we felt we did, and we wanted to try it. So, we started our little operation and it just grew from there.

Q: Who were the other founders?

A: Gloria Ahern and Ed Cook. They both still volunteer here. They both come in on Thursdays and love it here. Everyone is making a big thing out of the fact that I’m retiring, but this isn’t about me. It’s the whole group of people. It’s all the volunteers. We’re all older and they just fall in love with what we are doing here.

Q: Why is that, do you think?

A: It’s all about how we handle the customers. We’re non-threatening. We treat everybody with dignity – we don’t care who they are. Nobody has to bring proof of their salary. We take their word for it. And we treat them all with respect. So, they feel very comfortable here. We love the people we help and they love us. We get to know their names, it’s not just an anonymous handout.

Q: Where did the Food Cupboard first set up shop?

A: We started at Holy Cross, but we had to move out because we needed a bigger space, so we moved over to St. John’s church. We became our 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, so we were not a part of the churches, but thank God for them that we never paid rent, utilities or anything like that until we moved to where we are now when St. John’s closed (in 2013). So, that was good. It meant we could do an awful lot with the money we raised, and we poured it all into food, and into expanding to not just nonperishables, but fresh produce all year round.

Q: How difficult was the move to the current facility at 130 Thadeus St.?

A: It’s hard because it’s difficult for people to find us here. There was a bus stop right outside of St. John’s, and the city housed people in the motels right across the street. So, it has affected our numbers, although there will still be 23 of 30 people lined up and waiting when I get here in the morning. We do deliver to 22 people who just can’t get here, but most have to find a way to drive here somehow. And, I must say, the neighbors have not been exactly friendly, I’m sorry to say. There’s a huge parking lot across the street that won’t let even our volunteers park there. And there are signs up and down the street, no parking here, even though it’s not their land, it’s the city’s land. So, I think that’s a really mean thing. In the wintertime, especially, that makes it very difficult for older folks to have to walk from quite a ways away. Still, we’ve tried to handle things as best we can and not make too much of a fuss, because that’s not who we are. And this spot is good in other ways. At the time we were under a time crunch and it was the only thing we could find – it was an old garage full of grease and dirt – but the rent was reasonable and it’s about four times the size of our previous location, which helps, because we used to spend most of our time breaking everything out and then putting it all back in storage every time we opened. And it has been beneficial here to be near the Hannaford distribution, and all the truckers who give to us when they have something they have to get rid of because they’re taking another load back to wherever it came from.

Q: What does it take to make the Food Cupboard run?

A: Again, it’s all about the volunteers. And it’s not just the 60 or so folks who help out here during the year, who all do different things on different days, to help make sure we never have to turn away anyone in need. It’s everyone who’s helped us with equipment and refrigeration needs, stepped up to help us buy and then replace our van, and even the prisoners on work release who scrubbed like mad to clean up and paint this place, using paint that was donated. And during the summer when the community gardens start up – this place is better than Whole Foods, let me tell you.

Q: How many people do you serve?

A: We serve almost 300 families, between 60 and 80 each week. That’s pretty steady.

Q: What’s the hardest part about running the Food Cupboard?

A: As we’ve had more and more immigrants come in over recent years, not only is it hard because of communication difficulties, because their English is not good and, of course, no one here speaks their language, but there can also be cultural gaps. For example, try explaining what peanut butter is to someone who’s never heard of such a thing and speaks a different language. But we try hard to learn and understand other cultures so that we can provide things people will actually eat. It’s also clear that we are getting more people who are on drugs. Raising money is also a challenge, because there are not a lot of grants out there for food pantries. So, the people and companies who give are absolutely vital.

Q: What’s the best thing?

A: We have fun. Everybody likes to feel like they are helping people, but we’ve all really become like family. And helping to set up the Food Locker backpack program in the schools, to help feed children who are going hungry, that has been particularly satisfying to everyone. It’s just wonderful to see all the smiles on all the volunteers and all the people we serve.

Q: Why did you stick with the work for so long?

A: After I became a window – my husband Dick died in 1999, just two years after this all started – it helped fill in my time. And, of course, there is the amount of satisfaction I’ve been able to get from not only being able to help so many people, but also from having been able to run something like this, setting up all the procedures, and having it all work. I never accepted any pay for this. My pay was in the hugs and thank-yous I received from clients.

Q: Why retire now?

A: Well, I’m 80 years old and I have not taken any more than one week’s vacation in 20 years. I put in maybe 35 hours per week, both here on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and at home doing paperwork. I’m a big believer in personal thank you cards to everyone who donates, be it time, money or food.

Q: Will you still volunteer?

A: I think I have to walk away entirely. I would be a very nosy, vocal volunteer. I have been so strict about how we do things and how we handle food. For this summer I am not going to do anything. After that, I will probably do something with the schools, maybe with their Food Locker backpack program, or in the libraries. I have to say, I certainly don’t feel 80. My days will be

Q: How do you feel about the reaction to your retirement?

A: It’s been nice. I’ve been getting a lot of plaques and parties. But, it’s funny, I’m known for feeding the hungry, but I can tell you, one thing I do not need is any more retirement cake (laughs).

Q: And what would you like people to remember about you and your time leading the food pantry?

A: Nothing about me. What I would like people to remember is that there are a lot of people out there who need help. Food is just one of the things they need. People say, why don’t they just get a job. Well, a lot of them have jobs and still have trouble getting by. And there’s always children in those families. Not a one of them should ever feel hungry, because we waste too much food in this country.

Q: Did you have any children of your own?

A: No. My husband and I were late bloomers. He was 44 and I was 34 when we married. People said it wouldn’t work, that I was too independent and set in my ways by then. But it worked out just fine. So, no, we never had any children – every youngster who got a healthy meal from us over the past 20 years, those have been my children.

Return to top