Energetic volunteer lights up Gleaners Mercado Food Pantry in Mexicantown

“I know their faces,” said Joe Pilat, referring to the hundreds and hundreds of hungry kids and families he serves as a devoted volunteer of Gleaners Food Hub Pantry within the Ford Resource and Engagement Center at the Mexicantown Mercado in southwest Detroit. “They are so grateful for the pantry, and personally, it’s a good experience for me to help our clients,” said Joe, a smile creasing his face.

Joe’s journey to becoming an active volunteer at the Mercado Pantry began rather innocently. “I came in one Saturday and asked about volunteering,” he recalled. “I’ve always been in the workforce (since 16). I like to stay active, physically fit. Once I started at the pantry, it felt like a glove,” he recalled.

18 months later, Joe’s volunteering journey with the Gleaners Mercado Food Hub has evolved into working four days a week, often in 10-hour shifts. In his time, Joe’s unloaded food trucks, mopped floors and cleaned windows. However, his greatest gift to the pantry has come from his years working in the retail industry. “I’m into organization, neatness, having our shelves be orderly,” said Joe, reflecting on the spotless, grocery store feel of the pantry, a tribute to his merchandising skills and savvy. “I feel good when our clients come here and say the pantry, looks so good,” he added.

Joe said he’s learned to enjoy the simple things in life. A brisk walk (he regularly walks up to three miles, three days a week, one of the reasons he’s in such good shape for someone in his mid 60’s); cooking from scratch and the warmth of friendship he feels while working at the Mercado. “We are like a family,” he said, noting an upcoming Thanksgiving pot luck in which he will make his renowned cranberry relish salad.

Joe also likes being on the frontlines of the battle to stamp out hunger, realizing after 18 months at the Mercado it has emotional highs and lows. “I like seeing how happy kids are when they ask their mom if they can get a certain item off the pantry shelf and the mom says yes,” Joe said, smiling to himself under his Detroit Tigers hat. He’s also seen the humbling nature of hunger first-hand.  He recalls helping a client shop at the pantry. “The person selected a certain food off the shelf,” Joe remembered. When I asked if they had a stove to cook it on, the person said no. At that point, I started to realize, this person is likely homeless,” he added.

The emotional ups and downs notwithstanding, Joe believes in the importance of the Gleaners pantry and the Mercado as a whole. “The pantry is a spinoff of everything coming together here at the Mercado,” said Joe. People have many resources and services available to get help,” he added.

Gleaners relies on the support of more than 49,000 volunteers like Joe. Contact us to get more information on how you can become a Gleaners volunteer. The Ford Resource and Engagement Center at Mexicantown Mercado is located at 2826 Bagley Ave. in Detroit. More information on the FREC can be found at www.fred-detroit.org or call (313) 962-4888.