Steelworkers helping steelworkers through tough times
Wednesday, 06 February 2013 11:32

Food pantry provides for laid-off workers

by Nicole Rodman

    For two or three days each month since September, Tracey Coleman and her fellow volunteers set up at the Steelworkers hall on Dundalk Avenue to assist those in need.
    The wife of a former steelworker, Coleman organizes monthly events in which food is distributed to former steelworkers in need.
    The food, mostly non-perishable goods such as canned food, rice, soups and stews, is donated by the Maryland Food Bank.

    According to representative Tonya Harrison, who works with the Maryland Food Bank’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the aid is given in recognition of the many food and donation drives held by Sparrows Point steelworkers over the years.
    Now that the steelworkers themselves need help, the Maryland Food Bank is glad to return the favor.
    In addition to the Maryland Food Bank, a pet food bank known as Thoughtful Paws also attends the events to hand out pet food to those in need.
    According to Coleman, approximately 2,700 families take advantage of the monthly food pantry events.
    At the most recent event, held from Monday, Jan. 28 through Wednesday, Jan. 30, as many as 1,680 families had shown up on just the first day alone.
    According to Coleman, she and her fellow volunteers plan to hold the events until July, when United Steelworkers International is set to take over the hall.
    While the mood of many former steelworkers is somber upon first entering the food pantry, Coleman and her volunteers try to keep the mood light and social.
    For many of the workers, it is a chance to catch up and socialize with friends and coworkers.
    “Many of [the steelworkers] spent more time with their coworkers than with their families,” Coleman explained last Tuesday, adding, “With no work to go to, they have lost part of their families.”
    While the Maryland Food Bank provides the food, goods are unloaded and distributed primarily by volunteers.
    Most of these volunteers, Coleman noted,  are themselves former steelworkers.
    According to Coleman, receiving the food from fellow steelworkers helps soften the blow to workers’ pride.
    For these workers, many of whom worked at Sparrows Point for more than 30 years, losing their career after decades of being the family breadwinner is a devastating blow.
    To this end, Coleman and the other volunteers work to offer assistance while keeping the mood upbeat.
    As Coleman was quick to point out, one volunteer who shows up at most of the monthly events is 6th District state Del. John Olszewski Jr.
    “He has no political agenda,” Coleman explained, noting that Olszewski shows up quietly, with no media present, and volunteers his time.
    According to Coleman, he usually stays the entire day, unloading trucks and distributing food while talking with former steelworkers.
    During each of the events, Harrison and other Maryland Food Bank representatives are on hand to help those who need it sign up for the Food Bank’s SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps).
     After giving each steelworker a pamphlet, Harrison explains the facts and myths about the program.
    As she explains, the workers have paid into the Food Bank for years and, as such, are just getting back what they put in.
    According to Harrison, response has been brisk, as a number of former steelworkers have sought help applying for the program.
    Harrison and other food bank staffers assist the workers in getting through the application process, eliminating embarrassing and time-consuming trips to the Social Services office.
    SNAP participation is strictly confidential and anyone in need is encouraged to apply.
    For more information on SNAP benefits, call Tonya Harrison at 410-292-3719.
    While Coleman tries to keep the mood light, and recipients are always grateful, the heavy toll of the steel mill closing weighs on each former steelworker.
    “A lot of them still held out hope,” Coleman said of the steelworkers, adding, “They couldn’t fathom that Sparrows Point would be no more.”
    For former steelworker Jim Blankenship, who worked at the mill for 35 years, he is worried, but optimistic about his future.
    “I’m going to enjoy my life,” he explained last week, noting that he has plans to study cybersecurity.
    He knows all too well, however, the devastating toll that the closure took on workers, especially older ones such as himself.
    “I’m 57; who is going to hire me now?, he asked, frustrated.
    He also voiced his frustration at the loss of manufacturing jobs both here and across the U.S.
    “We are not a manufacturing nation,” he said.
    He also expressed anger at what he sees as a lack of assistance from local officials, noting “Nobody fought for us.”
    Though he is also out of work, Blankenship is a fixture at the monthly food pantry, volunteering hours of his time to assist his fellow steelworkers.
    According to Blankenship, he is driven to volunteer as he sees himself as more fortunate than many of his former coworkers.
    “I can get another job, some can’t,” he explained.
    For Blankenship, Coleman and Harrison, the drive to help those who helped others for so long keeps them coming back to the food pantry event each month.
    Coleman knows all too well the shock, pain and hardship that many of the former steelworkers are going through.
    Looking out over the crowd of former workers receiving their food, she asked, “Who would have ever thought, after 100 years, Sparrows Point would have gone under?”