At the outset of the pandemic, Jacque Collier found herself feeling like a lot of people — directionless and bereft of motivation. But when she began having trouble getting out of bed, she decided, something had to give.
Collier, who in normal times dedicates her retirement to volunteering countless hours, was clinically depressed. And that just couldn’t stand.
“Normally we do full-time ministry, anywhere we can, but when the pandemic hit we were all under lock down with nothing to do… I realized I was really depressed,” she recalled. “I had always wanted to do a little library or book pantry in front of my home, and I thought this would be the time. And what if we expanded it to include fresh food?”
Her husband and dedicated partner in crime, Tony, drew an example of some shelving that might hold food and books, which he built and attached to a tree. When the goods quickly disappeared and were met with smiling patrons and widespread appreciation, they went even bigger, realizing the need was larger than they had anticipated.
Now, one year on, Tony and Jacque Collier are operating a full-scale community food pantry out of their Altadena home, helping give away thousands of dollars’ worth of food per month and encouraging a neighborhood to come together during the pandemic. Not only do neighbors come by regularly to get food, they come by to give food or other products they can spare and that someone else might need. Others swing by to help clean up the station, nicely organize the products or help unload the large pallets of food and donations the Colliers drive to get from Union Rescue Mission, other food banks or participating grocers.
“We just thought that every one of us could use some encouragement and, maybe, a blessing during this time,” Jacque said. “We work from the philosophy that we will always get what we need, and people should take what they need from the pantry. We will get more; we will find a way.”
The food pantry, which includes a giving table with books and other items, is replete with positive messaging: literally. The Colliers have long believed in giving affirmations, at first among themselves as a family, and then openly, with signs up in front of their home, posted to their trees. Patrons stopping by might find messages like “We are thankful for you,” “You are so lovely,” “Let all you do be done in love,” or simply, “You are special.”
“For a long time we were known as the ‘sign keepers’,” Jacque laughs, recalling how that began. At first, she and Tony hung large paper signs from tree to tree. But when a youth tore one down and threw it in the gutter, she felt a bit hurt, until a neighbor brought it back and offered encouragement, saying he’d always wanted to meet them. When Tony told her, “Well, I guess those signs didn’t work,” Jacque responded, “We need to go bigger.” They painted some metal sheets, crafted from oil pans, and Tony found himself like he often does when helping create his wife’s visions — getting out his tools, this time with a ladder and drill.
“You can’t get her down,” Tony added, chuckling. “Nothing will deter her.”
The Colliers’ determination proved to be invaluable in getting the food pantry off the ground. Not only did they spend thousands of their own money through their nonprofit organization, We Care About You, but they’ve spent countless hours recruiting donations through Facebook, businesses and the community at large. They also had to face a lot of theft early on. With the “Take what you need” sign above the giving table’s canopy, someone took the canopy.
“I guess they decided they needed it more than we did,” Tony said, somewhat defeatedly. Someone else also stole all the coolers, he added, on three different occasions: “I even put a sign up ‘Please don’t take the cooler,’ and they still took it.”
Still, not to be deterred, they replaced the outdoor furniture, and then chained everything together. So far, that has worked.
The Colliers also learned to put out the food interspersed throughout the day, as people hoarding food became a problem. Sometimes a patron would come and wipe the entire pantry clean, taking dozens of jars of spaghetti sauce or dozens of loaves of bread, every single box of produce. One time, a woman in a Ford Escalade stopped and took four full bags of groceries that a friend had dropped off, before they even had time to unpack them.
But the Colliers shrug off the setbacks. The benefits far outweigh them, they say.
“We’ve had people come tell us their families would have gone hungry during this time if it weren’t for the pantry… we’ve met homeless people, who take from the table and go distribute it among other homeless people,” Jacque said. “We’ve met neighbors who just enjoy helping with the pantry — this has been a way for them to keep busy and do something positive.”
Tony referenced that aspect too, adding “It’s felt good, knowing we can help the community to help each other and lift one another up.”
In normal times, the Colliers are prolific volunteers, having volunteered with the homeless previously, and dedicate their time to Fellowship Church, the Hoving Home nonprofit organization, or their own nonprofit, organizing Christmas toy drives, a Candy Cane ministry, Easter bag giveaways and, always, book giveaways — a particular passion of Jacque, a retired public special education school teacher.
Of those acquainted with their volunteerism, Fellowship Church Pastor Michael Field said he wasn’t surprised in the least when he heard of the Colliers’ busy food pantry. In a year of crises, he noted, “when we were told the biggest way to show up was not to show up” to church for in-person ministry or worship, the Colliers found their own way.
“The Colliers are some of our best volunteers; they’re kind of the first people you call when you want to know how to show up for someone,” Field said, adding “Jacque is such a rallier of people. What they’ve done is such a testament to who they are; they’re so intent on doing good and showing up, and one of the biggest things they do is give others the opportunity to do good with them — they are just natural leaders.”
He emphasized the importance of the Colliers creating a community-wide effort at the food pantry, which has reverberated across the Altadena neighborhood.
“They are the shining example of what we’d love all of our people to be like,” Field said. “Sometimes, people sit around and wait for the church to provide opportunities for them to help, but if they could create opportunities of their own … we want people to see the world differently in light of their relationship with God and initiate like the Colliers initiate.”
Tony and Jacque, meanwhile, said they’ve learned a lot about their neighbors and been moved by other people’s generosity. When she reached out on Facebook to try and find one of her food pantry patrons — who was homeless and shoeless — some shoes that might fit him, she was overwhelmed with offers to help. They ended up gifting him six pairs of brand new shoes, all donated.
“I have found that people are so willing to help, so generous, it’s just that they need to know how,” she remarked.
The Colliers said they foresee running the food pantry for as long as people keep needing, and keep taking what they need. They welcome donations, and could especially use storage space, if someone might have unused office space or a corner in a storage facility, they added. Anyone wishing to visit the Colliers’ food pantry or drop off donations might do so at their home, 569 E. Woodbury Road in Altadena, or by texting Jacque at 626-390-6139.