On a given day in Milwaukee, an energetic and friendly 70-year-old Meri might be found greeting visitors to the four Friedens Community Ministries food pantry. Other days she might be using a delivery van to pick up food, or she might be out late at night offering food and clothing to prostitutes or people living on the streets.

“I don’t want anybody to feel like they can’t get help if they need it, and that’s one of the reasons why it pushes me to keep doing this,” Meri said. “Just because your money is short doesn’t mean you’re less of a person. It doesn’t mean you can’t manage. It just means something’s gone wrong.”

Meri, once strained by the pressures of working full-time and raising three of her grandchildren on her own, has been a client of Friedens as well.

“When you go to a pantry it’s a very humbling experience. It can also be a very demeaning experience,” Meri said. “I walked into this one and they treated you with respect and dignity, and that meant a lot to me.”

Meri, now the primary caregiver for her 3-year-old great-granddaughter Zariah, became a volunteer about six years ago. “I don’t know what I’d do without it,” Meri said. “Between my great-granddaughter and this pantry, this is my life.”

With a paid staff of just three to run Friedens Community Ministry’s network of four pantries, “volunteers are the life and breath of this organization,” said Catherine Draeger-Pederson, executive director of Friedens Community Ministries. “They’re really what makes it tick. Especially the volunteers who understand the community because they live there.”

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin depends on its own network of volunteers, seeing nearly 24,000 of them donating more than 77,000 hours to help sort, ensure quality and distribute food to member organizations. That’s not counting the thousands of volunteers like Meri who ensure places like Friedens can operate and get food to the people in the neighborhoods they serve.

Friedens’ Coggs Center Pantry, located on Vliet and 12th streets in central Milwaukee, is part of a neighborhood where up to 40 percent of the residents in the neighborhood are living below the poverty line, Catherine said. The area has an average per capita income lower than 98 percent of neighborhoods in the rest of the country.

Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin helps Friedens keep a steady and diverse supply of food that helps the organization build relationships with clients. Once that relationship is built, they can connect clients with hunger-solving resources and employment.

“It saves our resources tremendously,” Catherine said. “We didn’t always have a steady supply of food. We can get so much more through our partnership with Feeding America Eastern Wisconsin.”