In 2010, four co-workers set out to collect 50 jars of peanut butter and jelly for people in need. Three years later, they’re pleased to say that, with the community’s support, they ended up collecting more than 20,000 jars.
They’re not done by any stretch. With the cupboard nearly bare — stock is down to less than 100 jars of peanut butter, jelly and Fluff left to distribute — the fourth annual PB&J Drive got under way Saturday.
Co-organizer Peter Robinson Jr., a state court officer and instructor for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services, remembers the drive’s humble beginning. He was one of the four county employees who started it.
“We had just got done doing ‘Operation Christmas Child,’ where you go out and you get gifts for kids from across the seas because they don’t have Christmas,” he said.
The good feeling that the co-workers got from helping inspired them to try doing something for people at home. One of the four had heard local food pantries were short on peanut butter, so the group decided to hold a peanut butter and jelly drive.
According to the latest Census, the youth poverty rate in Lockport is 19.12 percent. And the Food Bank of WNY says that since 2006, the number of people who are turning to emergency programs for assistance has increased at an alarming rate. In that time it’s up 41 percent at shelters, 63 percent at soup kitchens and an overwhelming 82 percent at food pantries.
“There’s so many people that want to help, and so many people that need help,” Robinson said. “Mom and dad that are working two jobs each just trying to make ends meet. They go to these food pantries and they have to because that’s the only way to supplement their income.”
That first year, Robinson and his friends enlisted a small core of people to help. The core has grown over time, Robinson said, because people who get involved stay involved and recruit others to join.
An example is Tina Sheley. She and her longtime boyfriend, Mike Barlass, joined the drive in its second year. Now she’s the drive’s head coordinator.
“I got involved in the drive after meeting Pete and realizing that something so simple could be done to help a child of any age escape hunger,” Sheley said. “I spend my days in schools seeing too many kids in need, right in my own community. It is my responsibility to help them, to do what I can.”
Those involved say one of the reasons the drive works is its simplicity. It’s easy to help.
“I can buy a jar of peanut butter and jelly. That is something many people can do,” Sheley said. “A person of any age can grasp the concept of the drive and feel a sense of accomplishment pitching in to contribute to our mission.”
And do they ever pitch in. Not content to wait for the “official” start of the 2013 drive, people have already brought jars in, Robinson said. One volunteer collected 122 jars outside Walmart last weekend. A church in Newfane handed over 54 jars. And the U.S. District Court in Buffalo called Robinson to say they had a bin full.
Now that the drive is in full swing, it will go at fever pitch until the official end, Dec. 7.
“These calls are going to start coming in like crazy now,” Robinson said.
The calls are not just from local folks looking to give or receive, either. Robinson and his team have fielded inquiries from Texas, Colorado, Georgia and sunny Florida, all looking for information about the drive that’s captured hearts and attention on the Internet.
“They’re all trying to duplicate what we’re doing,” he said.
While almost all of the jars collected locally stay local, one exception was made earlier this year when the group sent a bulk shipment of peanut butter and jelly to Moore, Okla., which was hit by a tornado in May.
One unique aspect of the drive, compared to other similar programs, is that there are no overhead or administrative costs to run it. The effort is managed completely through volunteer work and donations. Collected food is stored at Second Presbyterian Church on Van Buren Street, where there’s no rent on the building. Thanks to others, there are no bills either.
“Anonymous people stepped up and paid our bills for us,” Robinson said. “That’s huge. Who does that?”
“I love being a part of a community that cares and does something to solve a problem that should not exist,” Sheley said.
Another thing that makes the drive successful is that is has managed to avoid turf wars and provincialism that can afflict event the best intended charities. According to Robinson, although the PB&J Drive doesn’t have a relationship with the Food Bank of WNY, there is also no animosity between the groups.
“We’re all on the same team. We might not always see eye-to-eye, but we do see in the same direction,” he said.
Follow US&J City Editor Scott Leffler on Twitter @scottleffler.
PB&J collection sites
The fourth annual Peanut Butter & Jelly Drive is ongoing through Dec. 7. Donations are being accepted in Niagara, Erie and Orleans counties. Here’s a listing of drop-off sites.
LOCKORT: Allie Brandt’s; Artz Gallery & Cafe; Bower Insurance Agency; Briody’s; City Hall; Cream & Sugar Cafe; The Dale Association; DeSales Catholic School; Dunkin’ Donuts (Beattie and Dysinger); Edward Jones Financial Office; Erie Canal Discovery Center; Flight of Five Winery; Gi-Ro Cleaners (town of Lockport location); John Pound Early Childhood Center; K.M. Treats; LCTV; Lockport Athletic & Fitness Club; Lockport Board of Education Offices; Lockport City Schools; Lockport Main Street Inc.; Lockport Moose Club; Lockport Opportunity Project; Lockport Pediatrics; Lockport Public Library; Marie’s Sewing Center; Molinaro’s Ristorante; Mongielo’s Auto Specialties; Niagara County Dept. of Health; Niagara County Dept. of Social Services; Niagara County Historian's office; Niagara County Sherriff’s Dept.; Niagara’s Choice FCU, all branches; Niagara Produce Lockport; Odd Fellows; Papa Leos; Scripts Cafe; Shear Madness; Summit MSP; Sunny’s Family Drive-In Restaurant; Stevie V’s; Thrifty Propane; Union Sun & Journal; Village Trailer Park Community Center; WLVL; YMCA; YWCA.
MIDDLEPORT, GASPORT & MEDINA: Boy Scouts Exec. Office; The Candle Nook; The Chop Shop; Gasport Elementary School; Grant Pollard Insurance; Hartland Volunteer Fire Co.; Hartland Town Hall; Peggy’s Towpath Cafe; Royalton Town Hall; Salon 9450; Terri Seidel’s 4-H Group; Village of Middleport offices.
BARKER: The 3 Bears Restaurant; Barker High School; Chad’s Diner; Pizza, Wings, & Things; Somerset Town Hall; Thee Barker Store.
NEWFANE/OLCOTT & WRIGHTS CORNERS: Bank of America; Countryside Merchant; Crossroads Pizza; Emma’s Closet; First Niagara Bank ; Flint Hardware; Karma Graphics; Newfane Central School; Newfane Family Dentistry; Newfane Library; Newfane Methodist Church; Red House Music; Tammy Jo’s Cafe; Town of Newfane; Wright’s Corners Wine & Spirits.
SANBORN: NCCC administrative building, culinary department and student center; Niagara/Orleans BOCES; Sanborn Volunteer Fire Co.
LEWISTON & NIAGARA FALLS: David’s Home of the Steak Hoagy; Greg’s Pools; Marsh’s General Store; The Trott Building.
THE TONAWANDAS & WHEATFIELD: 1st Presbyterian Church; Confer Plastics; IMA Life; Starpoint Central School.
GRAND ISLAND: First Niagara Bank; St. Stephens Church.
ERIE COUNTY: Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns' district office; Bounce Magic; Eberl Iron; Hamburg Central Schools; Hamburg Police Dept.; Hamburg Town Hall; National Fuel; Spirit of Truth Ministries; WNY Federal Credit Union.