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To contact Helping Hands

To suggest a new location for St. Mary’s Helping Hands or to learn others ways to help, call Helping Hands at 301-373-6990 during the food pantry’s regular hours, which are Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

It’s a story Rose Slade has told numerous times. Normally, however, she can tell it without crying.

But Slade was wiping away tears right from the start on Friday, as she once again described how St. Mary’s Helping Hands was established as a food pantry back in 1991.

In the spring of that year, Catholic Charities closed a food pantry it had been operating outside of Leonardtown. Slade recounted how she met an elderly woman outside of the closed facility. The woman was distraught because she had relied on the pantry’s assistance. “Mrs. Slade,” the woman said, according to Slade, “What am I going to do? I always come here to get food while I wait for my Social Security [check] to come in.”

Slade promised the woman she would help. Helping Hands was formed not long after, opening that same fall.

At first, the new food pantry worked out of Frank and Pat Klear’s garage. When the Klears were moving and selling their home in 1999, Helping Hands moved to its current facility, a building owned by Frank and Gertrude Dean on Beck Road in Hollywood. It was a godsend, Slade said. The Deans allowed the charity to use the building for free.

“And we’re so grateful to them,” Slade said. “They are wonderful people.”

Frank Dean died recently. The building out of which Helping Hands has worked for so many years has deteriorated. In fact, it was decided that it is too far gone to save.

Helping Hands has to move.

“It’s, unfortunately, just falling apart,” said longtime volunteer George Halvosa of Hollywood, as he and others rushed around in the small building, trying to keep up with the influx of requests for assistance first thing on a Friday morning.

Inside the structure, the problems are not apparent. It shows some care — the windows are decorated with valences, there is stenciling decorating the tiny kitchen’s walls. The building, which is packed with well-organized donations, is set up to allow volunteers to fulfill requests as efficiently as possible.

“This place is busy!” said Rhonda Goldsborough of Hollywood to no one in particular, as she helped sort 30 boxes of donations that came from half a dozen schools as well as the St. Mary’s County school system administration office. Goldsborough was volunteering for Helping Hands for the first time last Friday.

But take a quick walk around the outside of the little building, and the problems become clear: The caved-in boards on a low deck by the side door, the peeling paint, the dry rot around the windows and on the siding, the areas of the walls where the siding is gone completely and the insulation in the wall is totally exposed.

“The building was deteriorating. We knew that,” Slade said. “We knew we couldn’t stay here much longer.”

But for Slade, it is like 22 years ago, and she is back at the closed Catholic Charities office facing that distraught woman who couldn’t see who would help her. That’s the reason for her tears, she said. People still desperately need assistance, and Slade wants to make sure Helping Hands is there to provide it.

Last year, Helping Hands assisted 2,354 families, Slade said, which translates to helping 6,463 individuals.

Helping Hands has had a good situation at the Dean property. It is centrally located in the county, and easy for many people in St. Mary’s to get to. While Helping Hands pays expenses, like utilities and real estate taxes and liability insurance, it has never had to pay rent.

That’s one of the reasons it has been able to do the work it does. It has very little overhead and relies on a dedicated teams of volunteers for its manpower.

So the search has begun. Slade is looking for a new home for Helping Hands. She is lighting candles and saying prayers.

“We need to get something as soon as possible,” Slade said.

Helping Hands needs at least 1,200 square feet of space, she said. Due to the heavy loads that need to be carried in and out, it needs to be on the first floor of a building. The facility needs to be handicapped accessible, have parking, a bathroom for volunteers and heating and air conditioning.

And while she said Helping Hands would consider any location offered, the preference is to remain centrally located in St. Mary’s County — in Hollywood, Leonardtown, California or Callaway.

Ellie Slater of Mechanicsville, who has volunteered with Helping Hands for about 10 years, first heard last Friday that the organization has to find a new home. She initially expressed concern, but quickly shook that off and got to work. All the seats in the waiting area were filled with people waiting for a box or several bags of food.

“There’s other food banks,” Slater said. “But we’ve been here a lot of years.” She said she thinks it would be difficult for people to have to go too far away from the Hollywood area.

“You see the need,” Slade said, gesturing toward the full waiting area. “The need is great.”

scraton@somdnews.com