Passing the torch

When Badger Prairie Needs Network executive director Marcia Kasieta was rear-ended in July 2017 on her way to purchase food for a community meal, the first person she thought to call was not her husband, but rather, Pat Berry.

As Kasieta began to lose consciousness from a significant head injury, she thought about how the six-month-old community meal program she runs could fall apart permanently if it went on a temporary hiatus.

But Berry, who is retiring from BPNN after three and a half years, kept the meal afloat by spending the weekend preparing the meal with help from a visiting friend, and she also kept the organization running until Kasieta returned five months later.

“Pat did a lot to just keep everything running, which for me, I will never forget and can never thank her enough,” Kasieta said.

Berry, a former nonprofit vice president and CEO, had been the food pantry coordinator for a little more than a year at the time of Kasieta’s accident, and implemented multiple initiatives that streamlined the pantry’s processes.

Berry leaves behind a legacy of changes for the better. She encouraged better collaborative practices in an otherwise competitive pantry market, started a diabetes wellness program, expanded donations beyond food products, improved technology to track volunteers and keep its offerings current with needs and updated shelving for a better guest experience.

Another legacy she’ll be leaving is a bigger pool of help. BPNN now has a board of directors and a leadership team, so a sudden crisis will no longer result in one person needing to take on so much responsibility.

In her second retirement, Berry will spend more time with her grandchildren. She currently mentors new volunteer Meg Gleeson as her successor, and will continue to volunteer – admittedly, in a limited capacity.

Gleeson started Sept. 1. This month, Berry will finish handing her full-time duties over to other volunteers.

And Gleeson, who has two children and is working on a degree in health and wellness, will have a “safety net” in Berry.

That’s a big relief for Kasieta, who had nobody else she could turn to in 2017.

“At that time, we didn’t have a team to step in,” she said. “Now after a few years, I have like 10 people I could call.”

While Berry had volunteered intermittently at BPNN for seven years by summer 2016, being the food pantry manager was like a full-time job.

Berry said she still cares deeply about the pantry and is fortunate to have shared her time with the nonprofit.

“I still have energy, just not as much,” she said. “I am stepping away from leadership hoping I can still be instrumental in other initiatives.”

Stronger connections

Of all the changes Berry made, perhaps her most important legacy is one of cooperation, Kasieta said.

When Berry started at BPNN, there was a competitive culture among the regional pantries. One day, a long-time donor told her it was their last delivery to BPNN, as smaller pantries were in greater need.

It was the impetus BPNN staff needed to increase cooperation.

It doesn’t matter if my people are hungry, or your people,” Berry said. “We all are trying to feed people.”

Through the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin Advisory Council, she began to contact all the pantries in the area, asking what BPNN could do to share and then showing them how to implement new processes BPNN had pioneered.

That included her use of technology, such as creating a volunteer kiosk to record volunteer hours and track the amount of time duties took. BPNN developed its own software for the volunteer kiosk, then shared it for free to over 30 local pantries.

“We really were the teaching pantry,” Kasieta said. “Both Second Harvest and Community Action (Coalition) would say to other pantries, ‘Go out to BPNN if you need help with how to set up computer registration.’”

Focus on health

Berry also put a major emphasis on improving overall health, rather than just providing food.

She developed a diabetes wellness program that includes blood sugar checks and food boxes that encourage healthier eating.

Berry said she took a holistic look at health, including dentistry and personal essentials, such as toothpaste and toilet paper, which donors had often neglected to think of when contributing.

“If you can’t afford food, you can’t afford dental care, and bad dental care leads to health problems like heart disease,” Berry said.

She also made smaller changes, such as providing recipes for healthier options like encouraging visitors to use brown rice rather than white.

She hopes to see that continue with Gleeson, who will oversee further changes in what BPNN offers and how food is presented, including flipping the layout of the pantry around to move produce closer to the front.

Guest accessibility

Berry improved the pantry’s design to make it more inviting and less “embarrassing” to use.

She purchased shelving from World of Variety when it was going out of business to replace the warehouse-style shelving.

“It’s something that had a real wow effect,” Berry said. “The pantry got more light, it gave it a better atmosphere.”

Berry also added items for the hallway outside the pantry, which is accessible outside regular hours. A donated cooler from Madison’s Blackhawk Church allowed BPNN to stock milk, salads and fresh-cut fruits, in addition to the beyond breads and baked goods that had been there before.

Berry made other modifications to their food offerings. She did some research and found out what people from different cultures wanted for holidays like Thanksgiving, and customized it to be more inclusive.

Berry and Kasieta worked together to get grocery store-style artwork on the walls and improved the labeling on the shelves, in both English in Spanish, as 35% of BPNN’s guests speak Spanish as their first language.

Before, guests were given a list explaining how much of each item they could take. Now, the rations are listed on the shelves, which helps people with memory issues or language barriers.

“Now people don’t have to ask and feel embarrassed,” Berry said.

Neal Patten, Verona Community Reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.