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The kindness of others came when she needed it. A pantry is her way of giving back

[June 12, 2021: Jason Sheppard]

After her marriage ended in December 2019, Julia Hann of St. John's found herself unsure of where to turn next.

Hann, who had put her career on hold to raise her two children, suddenly found herself without a way to support her family. Because the family had been considered high-income earners just one month earlier, she was denied social assistance and found it difficult to find a job after being out of the workforce for so long.

By February, she didn't know where the next meal for her family was coming from.

"We were sitting pretty and a week later, I didn't know how I was going to feed my kids," Hann said.

"I had a beautiful home one day and was relying on the generosity of strangers the next."

She wrote a post asking for help on a local Facebook group called Need Something? Got Something, and right away, other members began donating whatever items they could to help a single mother through a tough time.


Today, Hann is back on her feet. She has nearly finished a year-long medical administration program and hopes to find a position working for Eastern Health upon completion.

She's also giving back to her community, setting up a neighbourhood mini-pantry as a way to do it.

Hann said her inspiration came when Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said during a February briefing that while she appreciated gifts of gratitude from the public, she would prefer it if people made donations to a food bank if they wished to show appreciation.

At the same time, Hann's young daughter and her class were taking part in a pay-it-forward initiative.

Those two factors — along with a need to say thank you to a community that helped her during a trying time — gave birth to Benjamin's Pantry in the Cowan Heights neighbourhood of St. John's. It's named in tribute to Benjamin Mackey, a 15-year-old who died in May 2020.


A community helping out

Hann created her own Facebook group for the pantry in February. It now has more than 500 members, who watch the daily donations arrive while fellow neighbours step up when it's needed.

Hann's mini-pantry in Cowan Heights in St. John's. (Submitted by Julia Hann)

The pantry is kept outside Hann's home 24 hours a day, as people are welcome to drop by at any time to help themselves to whatever they may need.

"The first time somebody comes by, they may feel embarrassed, but when you go out and have a chat with them, they're not embarrassed anymore. In fact, we've got a few regulars, and they've become a part of the family," she said.

Cowan Heights now has two pantries, with another in front of the United Church on Frecker Drive.


The Little Free Pantry outside Cowan Heights United Church in St. John's. (Submitted by Jason Sheppard)

Across Newfoundland and Labrador, there are now dozens of other pantries, fuelled by the values of giving when you can and accepting when you have a need.

"It is amazing to see these pantries popping up," Hann said.

"I think every time one opens, it encourages more people to donate, as there is a problem with food shortage in every nook and cranny in this province."

The majority of pantry creators are linked on Facebook in a group of their own, which has brought them together in friendship and the spirit of giving.

They'll even give to each other to help those in need. When a large donation is made to one pantry, it is divided up among the others, so everybody gets to have a little.

Hann said that has been her favourite part of the experience — getting to meet others and giving them the opportunity to donate and show their kindness.

"I told someone to stop thanking us because there's nothing to thank us for," she said.

"We donate a little every week, but we could not feed the amount of people we're feeding without everybody else helping us."


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