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Food pantry experience teaches Southeast volunteers life lessons

Dan Lazo would’ve been hanging out at home, watching TV.

Ditto for Fabiola Sannon, Lytisha Gillis and Erika Quinones.

Instead, on a hot, humid summer morning they were among several Southeast High School seniors-to-be toiling away at the St. Joseph Catholic Church food pantry. They were unloading boxes upon boxes of food, unpacking them, sorting the dry goods, then bagging them for the pantry’s needy clientele.

“I didn’t want to be home doing nothing, so why not do this?” said Lazo, 17, surrounded by crates of cereal, fruit, pancake mix, spaghetti sauce and tuna fish and much more.

“This is better, doing something beneficial for somebody else,” said Sannon, 18.

That’s the purpose of 21st Century, a grant-driven, month-long countywide community service program that includes 42 volunteers from Southeast.

They rotate daily, working at the Manatee County Boys & Girls Clubs, Meals On Wheels Plus, Southeastern Guide Dogs and other locations.

St. Joseph’s food pantry folks appreciated the help.

“They’ve saved us a ton of work,” said John Sitterly, who helps run the operation with his wife, Peg.

No kidding.

Thanks to the U.S. Postal letter carriers’ May food drive, the pantry received almost 98,000 pounds — 49 tons — of canned goods and dry food.

“We would still be sorting through August,” Peg Sitterly said. “I can get three, four people at a time to do it, but to have eight kids sorting twice a week has really been a tremendous help.”

Lytisha Gillis flexed her biceps after hoisting several mail bins filled with food.

“I enjoy this,” the 17-year-old said. “You’re helping out with the hungry, you’re helping children, the elderly.”

Erika Quinones was also assisting her own, as she put cans of vegetables, beans and soup and boxes of Jell-O, pasta and rice into plastic bags.

“I have some family and neighbors who need help and come here,” said the 18-year-old. “I’m also showing people Southeast can do good things.”

Dan Lazo’s younger sister, Lara, put serving the food pantry’s needy clientele in her own personal terms.

“It’s like you’re their brother and sister,” the 15-year-old said. “It’s good for my heart.”

Even so, food pantry volunteer Sue Gillis — no relation to Lytisha Gillis — gave the students a quick lesson in how far the plastic bags of food must last.

People may only visit the pantry once a month.

“I said, ‘You know these are the amount of groceries they get for a month?’ They said — ‘A month?’ They were shocked,” she said. “I told them, ‘Stay in school.’ ”

The advice resonated with Yvonne Koziak, a Southeast teacher for 26 years, who was packing food bags along with the students.

“It makes me feel more comfortable about the next generation,” she said. “There will be kids who are going to be responsible adults and know how to give — not just be takers.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.