Ministry gives out items to bring comfort to needy

It’s bad enough going to bed hungry. Bette Errig and Jean Amy Swenson hate to think about men, women

It’s bad enough going to bed hungry.

Bette Errig and Jean Amy Swenson hate to think about men, women and children going to sleep without soap and toothpaste, too.

That’s the main reason the women volunteer at the Comfort Zone Ministry at Trinity Lutheran Church in Amsterdam. Once a month, workers distribute soap, toilet paper, paper towels, diapers and other personal sanitation products to needy people. There’s no food — just items for personal grooming.

Comfort Zone and other pantries in the Capital Region provide goods that promote cleanliness because people in federal assistance programs are prohibited from “buying” anything in grocery stores except food items under the United States Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) rules. People use an electronic benefits transfer card to pick up such necessities as meat, fruit and vegetables at the store.

Comfort Zone Ministry

WHAT: Distribution of soap, toilet paper, paper towels, diapers and other personal sanitation products (but no food).

WHERE: Trinity Lutheran Church, 42 Guy Park Ave., Amsterdam

WHEN: Pick up items: Fourth Tuesday of each month; distribution begins at 6:40 p.m. Drop off items: Tuesday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

MORE INFO: 842-6691

Rules of program

“You can buy any food except alcohol, pet food or heated foods,” reads one of the rules of the program posted at “You can also buy seeds and plants to grow food, as long as you are buying them from a store that accepts SNAP-food stamps.

“You cannot use your EBT card to buy soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, tobacco, or anything else that is not food,” the rules add.

“Food is important, so is a toothbrush and so is toilet paper,” said Swenson, an Amsterdam resident who co-chairs Comfort Zone with Errig. “You’ll never convince me toilet paper is a luxury. There are a lot of things you can tell me are luxuries in my life, but toilet paper is not among them and every one of us needs it.”

Kenneth Sierra, Northeast regional public affairs director for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, said the nature of the SNAP program is to simply provide food.

“The program focuses on providing additional resources for families so they can augment their purchase power in nutritional food,” Sierra said. “If an individual is on a welfare program, any of these federal cash programs where they receive actual dollars, those programs and those funds there allow you to purchase items like toiletries.”

Sierra added that SNAP benefits are supplemental, and that families using these benefits have an income of sorts. They would purchase food with their benefits card, Sierra said, “and then use their funds they have available, through a paycheck or funds they have, to purchase those [toiletry] items.”

Sierra also said if people could purchase any types of items at grocery stores, the SNAP program would no longer be a supplemental food program. He said there have been cases where people have abused the system, using their food benefits to purchase tobacco, beer and other things that are not allowed.

About 20 volunteers — the “zone” has recruited members from several other churches, synagogues and organizations — prepared 203 bags for the needy on a sweltering recent Thursday evening. Bars of Palmolive soap, Kleenex facial tissues, Pampers diapers and bundles of paper towels were stored inside the Trinity Lutheran parish house.

Goods are handed out on the fourth Tuesday of each month at the church, 42 Guy Park Ave. Distribution begins at 6:40 p.m. and is followed by a short church service.

People who pick up packages are not required to attend the service. “Some of them like the music,” said Trinity Deacon Shirley Prahl. “We sing too, you know.”

Other local pantries and shelters know their clients can’t use federal benefits to purchase soap and shampoo.

“We have a regular food pantry open Tuesdays,” said Dan Payne, director of programs at Bethesda House in Schenectady. “Every other last Friday of the month, we try to give full-sized hygienic products — shampoo, shaving cream, deodorant, a couple of razors we usually throw in and, if we have it, dental floss.

“There’s always a big demand,” he added. “We usually give away 100 bags every time — that’s an approximation. We get the products from people donating. They know we do this, and they donate. If we don’t get the donations, we scrape the funds together to buy them.”

Ministry’s pantry

At the Schenectady Inner City Ministry’s food pantry, soap and toilet paper, diapers and other personal items are distributed along with canned soup, stews and vegetables.

“I get all my personal hygiene and diapers and toilet paper and everything from the Regional Food Bank,” said Gail Van Valkenburgh, director of the pantry at 839 Albany St. “As long as you’re a food bank member, you can order all that for 16 cents a pound. We go through thousands of pounds a week of that stuff.”

People want the items, especially diapers. Van Valkenburgh said if people have used up their six allowed visits a year to the pantry, they can still come in once a month for baby items. She believes it’s important for needy people to get both food and hygiene products. “Every time you come, for all six of your visits, you will get toilet paper and shampoo and toothpaste,” she said.

“It’s really important because they can’t use their food stamps. If they get no cash from DSS [the Department of Social Services], any cash benefits at all, then they have no way to purchase these things.”

Trinity Lutheran’s project began in April 2009.

“When we began, the Zonta Women of Montgomery-Fulton Counties took us under their wing,” said Broadalbin resident Errig. “We were their project for that first year. They helped us get started and made significant donations to get us off the ground.”

Word has spread.

“We started with perhaps 30 or 40 families coming,” Errig said. “In April, we had 147 families. We had 153 in May and 179 in June.”

She believes the increase in participation means more and more people are in need.

“The assumption I think among people is everybody who comes here is on social services, and that’s not true,” she said. “We have another group of people who are older, who are on fixed incomes, who live in apartments locally. They make too much money to be [on] social services, but they’re on fixed incomes, so as the taxes go up, the cost of buying food items goes up. They’re really getting squeezed; we’ve had them come here, too.”

People in need do not consider hygiene products extras. They come to Trinity Lutheran on that last Tuesday of the month and look for soap and deodorant.

“I run the goodie table,” Swenson said. “If I put out shaving cream with razors, I’ll put out 20 at a time and they’re gone every time. Same thing with toothpaste and toothbrushes.”

Errig added that adults are not the only people who want to smell and feel fresh. She remembers an 8-year-old boy who once visited the ministry and couldn’t wait until he got home to try his new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste.

“The toothpaste was just running down his face, he was just having so much fun brushing his teeth,” she said. “It was joyous . . . and I loved this. It’s a toothbrush.”

Comfort Zone can use more volunteers and more donations. If food is donated, workers will get it to food pantries. The ministry has distributed packages of underwear, books, boots, scarves and caps. Boxes of clothing are not needed; there are other organizations that specialize in passing out used shirts, sweaters, coats and dresses to people who need them.

Swenson said people have donated perfumes they’ve opened and just didn’t like. “It’s brand new, all they’ve done is break the seal,” she said. “We’ll take it, because other people can’t afford it. That’s a luxury, but it’s still something that puts a smile on somebody’s face.”

Enhancing self-esteem

Soap and toilet paper are necessities for hygiene, and Errig believes hygienic items are also important for self-esteem. People look and feel better when they’re clean.

“One night, we didn’t have much in the way of men’s products,” Errig said. “I had a gentleman come up to me and say, ‘You know, there are men here, too, and we would really like to be able to have the kinds of choices the women have because we need to shave, we need to be clean.’ ”

People who want to donate products to Comfort Zone can drop them off at Trinity Lutheran from Tuesday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. People who want to join the volunteer team can call the church at 842-6691.

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