Every Wednesday morning, neighbors gather outside a Kensington row home and wait for the front door to swing open. Inside, Emergency Services Coordinator Maria Nieves and a team of volunteers prepare for a busy day giving food to neighbors in need.
People might come to The Simple Way for the first time just because it’s a food pantry, but Maria and her team work just as hard to provide camaraderie and connections to other resources as they do to provide food to more than 40 clients a week.
“You don’t want to go to a place and be bummed out, getting a bag of food and not talking,” Maria explains. “We want people to enjoy that time together.”
Those who receive food from the pantry say they don’t just come back because The Simple Way offers grocery-style food choice and an opportunity to socialize over coffee and donuts, but also because of the supportive atmosphere.
Maria sets aside time to meet with new clients one-on-one to learn how The Simple Way can best help them.
“I’ll give them an appointment, hear their story and see what resources I have available,” she says. “But I always ensure they leave here with just a little bit of hope, because I hate to see somebody coming in, [feeling down] and I’m like, ‘Listen, you’re breathing. You’re good. God gave you another day.’”
Maria can speak to them from her own experiences. As a teenager in Brooklyn, Maria had her first child at 17, at which point she had to drop out of school to raise her child. She was a single parent, a young mother, and had few people on whom she could rely.
She moved to Philadelphia in 2005 to escape the traffic, overcrowding and fast pace of New York City.
Maria moved to the City of Brotherly Love with her two youngest children, leaving her three oldest children in New York since they were already grown and independent.
“Thank God they turned to be awesome kids, which I am truly proud of, with awesome jobs,” she says of her children. “They admire me because throughout my struggles they have never seen me give up, and never let anything bring me down.”
Nothing – or almost nothing – can keep her away from work, either. Even when she was battling breast cancer or when other health issues have kept Maria away from The Simple Way, her primary concern has been how she can get back to helping others.
“My thing that keeps me going, my energy is my clients,” she says. “If I didn’t have my clients, I’d be lost.”
She took a month off from work after a double mastectomy in 2014, a surgery that followed two others, as well as breast cancer treatment through chemotherapy and radiation. When she returned, she kept quiet about the reason she’d been gone.
“And then recently I started to talk about it ’cause I felt a little bit comfortable, and they’re like, ‘Why didn’t you say anything? Because we could’ve been there for you,’” Maria says. “And I was like, ‘No, because I had to be there for you because you’re the one in need, not me.’”
She says she’s learned from experience that no matter what she’s going through, someone else has it worse. Maria often tells clients that until we die, we’re not out of solutions.
The Simple Way has been a solution for Maria not just as a job or source of purpose, but also as a source of food. Eight years ago, Maria tried to hide her face and avoid being noticed as she waited in line for food. Slowly, she began to hold her head up while she waited in line. She started helping the volunteers, then joined their ranks.
She believes that if she’d never been in her current clients’ shoes, she wouldn’t be much help to them.
“We’ve had volunteers who don’t live in the neighborhood. They don’t have a clue what’s going on here … (and they) kind of look down upon (the clients),” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Never look down on anybody, because you never know when you’re going to be there.'”
To join Maria in the fight against hunger, visit our get involved page.