Longtime volunteer is backbone of food pantry serving thousands in Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A food pantry in southern Kent County is quietly helping to feed more than 400 families a month.

While dozens of volunteers and community partners help keep the doors open at the Streams of Hope food center, many credit one woman's efforts for the pantry's success.

"She does everything here. Everything," said Barb Nauta, the Food Director at Streams of Hope. "She monitors all the food distribution, all the trucking. We work with Feeding America, Meijer Simply Give. You name it. She is there... She's amazing."

Nauta is talking about Heidi Vanderlaan, a longtime volunteer at Streams of Hope. Vanderlaan was one of the founding board members when the non-profit was formed in 2006, and she's overseen the food center since it opened nearly five years ago.

"My background is in social work, so helping people is something very dear to my heart," Vanderlaan told FOX 17 News. "It's like we're all one big family here. We're all helping others in need, and that gives us all focus and purpose."

Around 100 volunteers help staff the pantry, along with Vanderlaan. Each month, anywhere from 25 to 28 thousand pounds of food are handed out. Vanderlaan is happy to do whatever it takes to keep the operation running smoothly-- whether it's cleaning bathrooms, or operating the Hi-Lo machine in the warehouse where extra food is stored.

"There's nothing that she would ask you to do that she wouldn't do herself. And I admire that," said Jen Hill, a client who's also become a volunteer. "I just think she has such a heart for it. She's just the perfect person to do this."

The pantry has a large section of fresh produce, canned goods, frozen food, and personal care items, like diapers. It is set up like a grocery store, with shelves divided and labeled with different food groups.

Vanderlaan understands it may not be easy walking through the doors to ask for help, so she and other volunteers try to make the experience as welcoming as possible.

"We give them a hug. Pray for them. Whatever their needs are, we try to meet them as best we can," she explained. "It's hard enough for any family to walk through the door and admit they don't have enough money to put food on the table."

Along with the food center, Streams of Hopes offers a number of services, including a community garden, doctor on site and educational resources. In the pantry, where Vanderlaan spends most of her time, she clearly sees the impact they are making in the area.

"You feel like you're making a difference, that you're helping this community grow healthier," she said. "I love it. And I plan on staying here, for as long as they can use me."

Streams of Hope will be holding a Golf Outing in August, to raise money for its mission. To learn more about the event, click here.

To learn more, or to volunteer at Streams of Hope, call (616) 272-3634, or click here.

As the FOX 17 Pay it Forward Person of the Month, Vanderlaan is receiving a $300 prize.

Meet Lisa Anderson, the March Pay it Forward Person of the Month.

Know someone who should be featured next month? Nominate them here.

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