SRU alumna serving vital role with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank
The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank hosts drive-up food distribution events during the pandemic. GPCFB staff include Maria Montaro, a fundraising coordinator who is a 2015 Slippery Rock University graduate.
Dec. 2, 2020
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. – Hunger is always an issue that needs addressed by communities, but food insecurity has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic and the beginning of winter. One Slippery Rock University graduate has witnessed this firsthand in her roles working for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne.
"The need for food security resources has gone up 40% since the start of the pandemic," said Maria Montaro, a 2015 SRU graduate with degrees in social work and philanthropy and nonprofit management. "That's a direct result of job loss from the pandemic. We've had to serve individuals who've never needed our support before."
Montaro is a fundraising coordinator at GPCFB, getting community groups and corporations from 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania to engage with the food bank's mission to end hunger in the region. She recently transitioned from a community engagement coordinator, a role in which she was part of a team that recruited, trained and managed more than 6,000 volunteers.
"It's been a really busy year for us, but I'm excited for the challenge and I've been blown away by the amount of community support that we've been given through this tough time," Montaro said. "We're doing really great work and it's inspiring to see that we're going to continue to grow and provide services for the community to make sure that we can end hunger in southwestern Pennsylvania."
The GPCFB provides more than 35 million meals per year to an average of 110,000 people per month through a variety of pantry systems, shelters, food drives and by partnering with 365 organizations in southwestern Pennsylvania. Montaro said the GPCFB's increase of meal distribution is matching the 40% spike in food insecurity in the region.
The holiday season and the winter months present additional needs that are underscored by the economic fallout from the pandemic.
"People are very generous around the holidays, which really helps us out, but there's a need during all 12 months of the year," Montaro said. "A lot of families do struggle around the holidays, not just because they're trying to provide gifts or have big meals for their families, but that's when heating bills go up because of the cold and if you're someone who does contract work that can only be done outdoors, you might not have work in the winter. There are a lot of logistical reasons for food insecurity during the holidays."
There also logistical reasons caused by the pandemic that affect food distribution. For example, regularly available volunteers, many of whom are retired, older adults who are at-risk for COVID-19, are unavailable to work events and at collection sites. Prior to the pandemic, the GPCFB offered a program called Produce to People where between 500-800 families would each receive up to 50 pounds of fresh produce at nearly 20 sites in the region.
"Because of social distancing, we can't have 500 people gathering in a two- or three-hour period so we had to find a different way to get those types of produce out to people," Montaro said.
Drive-up distribution events have been an alternative, where people drive to a site and food is loaded into their vehicles by volunteers. Alarming news coverage of these events from across the country often include aerial drone footage of cars lined up for miles.
"You could visualize the need," Montaro said. "A line of about 60 cars is a mile long and if the same 500 families (that we normally serve) come through, that's going to be a lot of cars. Still, there are a lot of other programs that are seeing a huge increase during the pandemic. Luckily, we now have those distributions models down to a science so that people aren't waiting as long and we ask families to register so we have enough boxes to provide. All of these logistics have been a work in progress but they have really come together nicely."
Younger volunteers have also responded. One example is Abby Genter, an SRU graduate student majoring in student affairs in higher education from Allison Park, who volunteered last March at the onset of the pandemic. She helped load boxes of food into hundreds of cars lined up in the Kennywood Park at a GPCFB drive-up event.
Abby Genter (right), an SRU graduate student, volunteered last March at a GPCFB
drive-up food distribution event at Kennywood Park in West Mifflin.
Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
"I just wanted to do something," Genter said. "It's definitely a scary time and you feel helpless that you can't really make an impact with the social distancing, but this was a hands-on way that you could do something significant and help a lot of people. You can still make a difference without the risk of spreading the virus."
"Feeding people is something we all need to get behind," Montaro said. "It's really not a political statement to say no one in our community should be hungry. Everyone deserves to have enough food to eat and to not feel hungry. That's why I fell in love with the mission of the food bank, which is to feed people in need and mobilize our communities to eliminate hunger."
Montaro first interned with the GPCFB in 2016 when she was pursuing a master's degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. After other internships and social work jobs, including three months as a researcher in Cambodia, Montaro completed her master's degree from Pitt, an MBA in human resource management from Fitchburg State University and her doctoral degree in community engagement from Point Park University. She was hired by the GPCFB in July 2019 during her second year in the Ph.D. program at Point Park.
Reflecting on her time at SRU, Montaro said the social work and philanthropy and nonprofit management programs helped her better interact with different types of people to make sure they are treated with dignity and respect.
"There's not a single day that I don't use a skill that I learned at SRU," Montaro said. "Everything from grant writing and fundraising to special-event coordinating and budgeting. I'm definitely thankful for that.
"SRU is the best place in the world and I was so fortunate to go there. I am continuously impressed by how involved the University is and how involved the students are in activities and innovative projects. The University overall just has so much to offer."
Earlier this year, Montaro presented virtually for students from SRU's Nonprofit Leadership and Public Administration University Seminar class, taught by Alice Del Vecchio, assistant professor of nonprofit management, empowerment and diversity studies. The event, titled "So Many Ways to Change the World," featured SRU alumni panelists such as Montaro who are impacting the local, regional and international communities.
More information about SRU's social work and philanthropy and nonprofit management programs are available on the SRU website. More information about the GPCFB, including ways people can volunteer or donate, is available on the "Get Involved" section of the GPCFB website.
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