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Easthampton Community Center celebrates its 40th anniversary

  • Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, talks about the center as Heidi Corbett of Southampton waits to pick up food from the food pantry.  <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS<br/>

    Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, talks about the center as Heidi Corbett of Southampton waits to pick up food from the food pantry.


    CAROL LOLLIS
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  • left, Heidi Corbett of Southampton picks up food with the help of Jim Vaillancourt, a volunteer and board member, at the Easthampton Community Center Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left, Heidi Corbett of Southampton picks up food with the help of Jim Vaillancourt, a volunteer and board member, at the Easthampton Community Center Wednesday afternoon.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, packs a bag of food for a client Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, packs a bag of food for a client Wednesday afternoon.



    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left, Jill Strader of Easthampton picks up food with the help of Jim Vaillancourt, a volunteer and board member, at the Easthampton Community Center Wednesday afternoon. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left, Jill Strader of Easthampton picks up food with the help of Jim Vaillancourt, a volunteer and board member, at the Easthampton Community Center Wednesday afternoon.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/>Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS


    Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center.

    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, talks about the center as Heidi Corbett of Southampton waits to pick up food from the food pantry.  <br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS<br/>
  • left, Heidi Corbett of Southampton picks up food with the help of Jim Vaillancourt, a volunteer and board member, at the Easthampton Community Center Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center, packs a bag of food for a client Wednesday afternoon.<br/><br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • left, Jill Strader of Easthampton picks up food with the help of Jim Vaillancourt, a volunteer and board member, at the Easthampton Community Center Wednesday afternoon. <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • <br/>Robin Bialecki, the executive director of the Easthampton Community Center.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

— While waiting on the stairs of the Easthampton Community Center for the food pantry to open, Heidi Corbett of Southampton called the center “a blessing.”

Corbett was a volunteer at the Community Center when, more than two years ago, she found out the hard way just how vital the center’s services are. The Southampton fuel business she owned, Bishop Fuel, went under due to the economy and the burden of her late father’s medical bills. She lost her house and couldn’t find a new job.

“It got to the point where I had lost 30 pounds because I didn’t have enough food to feed myself and I was living in a place with no electricity,” Corbett, 42, recalled. “It’s hard to admit when you need help.”

She said she swallowed her pride in order to survive and has been coming to the food pantry on and off for two years, depending on when she has been able to find temporary work.

Robin Bialecki, executive director of the Community Center, said that many of the 669 families who visit the food pantry have similar stories about how the center has helped them. But she said the number of people who have benefited from the center is far greater than that. The center hosts everything from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to exercise classes and puts on community events such as regular free dinners and the annual Easter Egg hunt in April.

The Easthampton Community Center is celebrating its 40th anniversary Sunday with an open house. Bialecki said it’s a chance for the public to learn a little about the center’s history and see what it has to offer today.

“When they originally wrote the charter, it said the Easthampton Community Center should be a community space for community members,” Bialecki said. “I think that after 40 years, we definitely still hold that to be true.”

The center first opened its doors in October 1972 at 63 Main St., the space currently occupied by Banas and Fickert Insurance Agency. The center was looking to expand and a year later, purchased the 1897 brick building at its current location at 12 Clark St. for $25,000 using a grant from the former Stanley Beverage Corp.

Meeting the need

The center originally focused on providing a space for people, mainly teenagers, to gather, said Bialecki, 58. Fifteen years ago, around the same time that she joined the board of directors, they decided to expand the Community Center’s services to help feed and clothe needy residents.

When Bialecki took the job as executive director six years ago, the food pantry served 47 families. That number has increased to 669 families today.

“Every day we’re open, we’re signing up a new family,” she said. “Part of it is that word is getting out that we’re here and offering these services, and the other part is just that there’s so much need.”

To qualify, an individual or family must be on a federal program, whether it’s fuel assistance, food stamps, disability or veteran’s aid, she said.

The pantry, in the center’s basement, includes shelves of canned goods, nonperishables, bread and even some produce and desserts. Bialecki goes to the Big Y in Southampton and Big E’s Supermarket in Easthampton to pick up their day-old bread and desserts at least once a day, and sometimes twice, she said.

“We give out 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of food a week,” she said. “There’s a lot of hours involved with just collecting that much food.”

Across the basement, the “Clothing Closet” provides clothes and some household items at a suggested price of $3 per bag.

Bialecki said she or the center’s volunteers often help food pantry users fill out applications for food stamps or MassHealth, or get them in touch with the United Way or Salvation Army for other services.

“We try to get them what they need, whether it’s help getting housing or paying a bill,” she said. “Some people are here for a few weeks, some for months or years.”

Barbara Laflamm, 62, of Easthampton, collected a bag of groceries at the center Wednesday, as she has for three years. “That’s when I lost my job,” she said. “My husband works, but it’s not enough to pay the bills, and now I’m on Social Security, which isn’t much.”

“If I didn’t come here two weeks out of the month, it would be hard to eat,” she said.

Daily help

Bialecki said the board of directors has discussed renaming the center the Easthampton Survival Center because the food pantry has grown to be such a big part of the organization.

“But there’s so much more than that going on here,” she said. “There’s something going on seven days a week, whether it’s Zumba, karate, card playing or the knitting group.”

The building also provides meeting space to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and a weight loss group. A playgroup for preschool-aged children meets three times a week, and Bialecki said the center has made space available to everything from funeral or wedding receptions to birthday parties that got rained out.

The center also puts on community events, such as an enormous Easter egg hunt, and free community dinners — open to anyone who wants a hot meal and good company — on the first, second and fourth Tuesday of every month.

She said that like the food pantry, the other Community Center programming has increased significantly in the last six years. “We’re just doing more things now,” she said. “Even three years ago, we were only open three and a half days a week. Now we’re here every day.”

The center also comes through for the community in emergencies, Bialecki said. When most of Easthampton had no electricity for days following the October 2011 snowstorm, she and volunteers from the center cooked using generators at the Public Safety Complex and offered three free dinners. “We served 1,000 meals in three days,” she said.

The Community Center is funded through the United Way, city funds, donations and any grants they can secure. Last year, its budget was $120,000, and the food pantry accounted for $42,000 of that cost. About half the food in the pantry is provided by the Food Bank, and the rest is either donated or purchased with monetary donations.

Bialecki said the open house Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. will include tours, activities, refreshments and door prizes, and the public can learn about the different groups, classes and programs that take place at the center.

For more information, call the center at 527-5240 or visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/Easthampton­CommunityCenter.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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