Generation Church food pantry a community affair

Some of the volunteers at the food pantry operation of Generation Church Ahwatukee include, from left, William Wilks, Brandon Miller, Rev. Paul Lavino, Bruce Neely, Sheilah Wilks and Blanca Neely. The Wilks proposed the food pantry 20 years ago and Lavino thought it was a good idea.

It was somewhat of a role reversal for the congregants from Generation Church in Ahwatukee who gathered for a luncheon last week.

They normally aren’t eating on the church campus, but rather providing food to those who otherwise might not be eating at all.

The guests were attending an appreciation lunch organized by Rev. Paul Lavino, the church’s chapel pastor and former congregation leader who semi-retired a couple years ago and handed the leadership to his son-in-law, Rev. Ryan Visconti.

But the people who really appreciated the 55 volunteers — a collection of both Generation members as well as area residents who don’t belong to the church — were 10,000 unemployed and underemployed people, seniors, single moms and other economically hard-pressed individuals.

They benefited from Generation Church’s food pantry last year, receiving 820,000 pounds of food donated by caring individuals, restaurants, other Ahwatukee churches and four major food retailers in the community — Trader Joe’s, Fry’s, Safeway and Target.

The pantry started 20 years ago at the 28-year-old church, which has since given birth to a sister campus in Mesa, when congregants William and Sheilah Wilks told Lavino about their experience working with a food pantry at an inner-city church and suggested it would make a good community outreach.

“My first thought was “Why?” This is Ahwatukee,” Lavino recalled.

Yet, over those two decades, the pantry has not only served many underprivileged individuals from outside Ahwatukee, but others within the community as well.

“When people were losing their jobs and businesses in 2007 and 2008, we had a lot of local residents coming to us,” Lavino said.

Open from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the church, 11832 S Warner Elliot Loop, the pantry is through what Lavino calls “truly a community-wide effort.”

Churches collect food and bring it to the pantry. Mountain View Lutheran, for example, closed its food pantry and instead collects donated nonperishables as well as cash from its congregants on Sundays, then delivers the gifts to Generation on Monday.

Volunteers visit the stores and even some restaurants, picking up nonperishables as well as perishables for storage in the church’s walk-in refrigeration unit — a gift from a restaurant that was installed through a donation by the Ahwatukee campus of Central Christian Church.

Generation Church — heralded by the evangelical magazine Outreach as the 17th fastest growing congregation in the county and the fastest growing in Arizona — doesn’t have a pantry at its Mesa campus because leaders decided it would be redundant.

“There’s a Baptist church down the street that has a pretty big food pantry operation going there so we just decided another wasn’t necessary,” Lavino said.

People who want to donate food are advised to drop by the Ahwatukee campus about an hour before the pantry opens. Those wishing to donate cash can go to its website,  generation.church.

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