By Heather Wright

John van Hagel is credited with founding the nation’s first food bank, in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1967. Lois Jones, who lives next to Greenbelt Park, and representatives from about a dozen area churches weren’t far behind as they met in November 1968 in the Berwyn Presbyterian Church (BPC) library. Spurred on by their desire to help residents in need during the upcoming holiday season, they started what would become the nonprofit organization Help by Phone, Ltd. and its constellation of Prince George’s County-based emergency food pantries. 

Pantry north side
A view of the Help by Phone emergency food pantry hosted by Berwyn Presbyterian Church
Photo credit: Courtesy of Rex Powell

More than a half-century of holiday seasons have now come and gone, while Help by Phone remains, providing county residents with emergency assistance — food, clothing, financial aid for medication — and transportation to medical appointments, year in and year out. 

Best known for its food pantries, Help by Phone operates eight of them hosted by county churches, including St. Jerome Catholic Church in Hyattsville, Berwyn Presbetyrian in Berwyn Heights and University Baptist Church in College Park

The pandemic triggered a few changes for Help by Phone, beyond their mask-wearing, surface-wiping and physical-distancing measures. 

One of the pantries, hosted out of a Catholic church in Clinton, had to close for several months in response to an archdiocesan shutdown order, according to Marsha Voigt, president of the Help by Phone board of directors.  

In Hyattsville, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church/Iglesia Episcopal San Mateo’s Help by Phone pantry shut down during the pandemic for want of volunteers, while St. Jerome started hosting one. Many established pantries had to reduce their days and hours due to fewer available volunteers. 

Surprisingly, the pandemic has generally decreased demand at Help by Phone pantries, Voigt noted. She attributes this, in part, to the many free food distribution events held during the pandemic. These events usually have clients line up in cars to receive their food. In contrast, to access Help by Phone pantry services, clients call 301.699.9009, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to connect with the pantry serving their zip code. Clients then receive an emergency food supply from that pantry, based on household size. 

“A lot of people would rather line up and be anonymous than visit us,” Voigt noted in a phone interview. She also said that only one of their phone staff speaks Spanish, whereas other food distribution programs circumnavigate language barriers more easily.

BPC has hosted a Help by Phone pantry since the organization’s inception and was one of a few pantries that didn’t have to reduce its hours during the pandemic, according to Judy Birkenhead, coordinator at that pantry since August 2015. 

Although use of the BPC pantry remained stable from 2019 to 2020, it saw a significant drop in the number of clients during the first four months of 2021 (50 families, for a total of 158 individuals), compared to the same time period in 2020 (136 families, for a total of 461 individuals), Birkenhead noted in an email. 

Voigt said she sees fewer notices on Facebook about pop-up food distributions, and she also sees evidence that demand for Help by Phone’s call-in and pickup services will tick up again. 

Help by Phone also runs Safe Haven, a cold-weather shelter for homeless men that rotates among about 15 churches in central Prince George’s County. Due to the pandemic, Safe Haven could not operate this past winter. “It was agony to have to cancel,” Voigt commented.

The 52-year-old organization has had to pivot in the past, too. Voigt said that Help by Phone closed a clothing distribution center at a church within the last decade because of space and volunteer constraints. Within a year, though, they established partnerships between area churches and Title 1 elementary schools, like that between Greenbelt Community Church and Springhill Lake Elementary School, to provide clothing for students, including winter coats, underwear and shoes.  

Lois Jones, who was instrumental in founding the organization, quickly rose to executive director and has led Help by Phone through these changes. Jones, now in her late 80s, has received numerous awards and accolades for her work, including a proclamation from County Executive Angela Alsobrooks naming Oct. 2, 2020, “Lois Jones Day” in the county and commending her for exemplary service. “For many that know her, Ms. Jones is known as a ‘beacon of light,’ … but most see her as one who does what is right, just and purposeful for the community,” reads the proclamation. 

Wilhelm, who has been a Safe Haven coordinator with St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Riverdale for about 10 years, said that men staying there when Jones has been an overnight chaperone have described her as “tough.” For permitting purposes, Safe Haven churches have to enforce a number of rules, including no alcohol or weapons. Wilhelm indicated that Jones strictly enforces these rules so that the program can continue. 

Indeed, Help by Phone has an extraordinary track record of continuing, never closing down once during its half-century tenure. 

Jones is proud of the ways in which Help by Phone has supported area residents over the decades. When asked about the organization’s most important contribution, she said, “Feeding a lot of people and sheltering a lot of people. Everything we’ve done, I’m proud of.”