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Watertown bids farewell to pantry director

Posted by Sarah Thomas  August 5, 2010 01:15 AM

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The director of the Watertown Food Pantry will step down in September after 15 years in a role the town considers part time. But some who say the pantry has been enriched by her extra work contend the job should be changed to a full-time position.

Deb Kaup estimates she works around 50 hours a week during the winter and slightly less during the summer. Beyond her job description, she attends task force meetings and assists Watertown’s economically disadvantaged with job and housing advice.

Yet Kaup is considered a part-time employee — paid $22,500 a year with no benefits by the Council on Aging. Volunteers in the pantry system say the wage doesn’t match Kaup’s efforts, and won’t be sufficient for whoever follows her in the position.

"The town needs to look at what they’re losing with Deb," said Donald Elliott, who has volunteered for 10 years at the pantry. "Deb isn’t just a director, she gives them help with housing and all sorts of other problems. She’s a treasure."

Exhausted by the job’s demands amid a dismal economy, Kaup gave the Council on Aging 10 weeks of notice so it could find and train a new director.

‘‘I’m 62 years old and haven’t had a vacation in years,’’ Kaup said in an interview. "I felt it was time to leave."

Kaup said that she and her volunteers had spoken privately to administrators in the past, but never made a formal plea for more compensation or support from the town manager or the Town Council.

"I can’t imagine how it will be for someone to come in who hasn’t been doing this, to just pick it up," said volunteer Susan Cooke. "It’s such a complex job, and she has a rare gift."

The pantry is managed by the Watertown Council on Aging, which pays the director’s salary and maintains the pantry’s phone line. Food is covered through grants and donations.

Caryl Fox, director of the Council on Aging, said that managing the pantry is not a full-time job, and that Kaup’s eventual replacement will have fewer responsibilities.

"Deb is highly respected, and she goes above and beyond the call of duty," Fox said. "We think the job can be done in less hours, and still have the basics of getting people’s needs met continue."

The pantry is open Tuesdays and Thursdays to residents with proof of limited income. Families receive five day’s worth of food per month, as well as small toiletry items.

"The Council on Aging thinks I exceed my mandate, by doing things like attending the town’s Health Department task force meetings," Kaup said. "I go to keep abreast of what the health department is doing, because it helps me give good health advice to people coming to the center, and also to inform them of changes in things like food stamp policy. If I don’t go, that won’t happen."

Kaup said a recent Tuesday was a fairly typical example of a summer day, with the exception of a surprise delivery of 514 pounds of food collected in a food drive by students from Tufts University.

At 11:30 a.m., Kaup and her four volunteers had already been at work for around three hours in the basement of St. John’s Church on Mount Auburn Street. The space is donated by the church, and aside from Kaup, all the workers at the pantry are volunteers, many of them senior citizens.

Together, Kaup and the volunteers move food — sometimes hundreds of pounds of it — from a storage room called the ‘‘dungeon’’ to the main meeting room, where it is distributed to approximately 450 needy people a month.

Kaup also interviews applicants for food assistance, and keeps track of the religious and cultural food preferences of the people who use the pantry, as well as educating those with health problems. She attends numerous town committee meetings, including the health department’s task force, and team-teaches units at Shady Hill school.

Many of the families who use the pantry have young children; some are newcomers to the country and have few resources. Some come from surrounding towns where food pantries have shut their doors. Both Kaup and Fox say the numbers have gone up since the recession.

"For us, the recession started in 2007," Kaup said. "We didn’t know the name for it, and we weren’t hearing it in the news, but that’s when we started having more families, particularly families with children, coming in, saying they couldn’t get jobs."

Kaup started handing out information on food resources and employment. But as the recession deepened, changes came even closer to home. Her husband was laid off at WGBH; Kaup says the majority of her paycheck now goes toward paying for health benefits.

Kaup said she has invited members of the Town Council in the past to come by and see the work done at the pantry. One council member, Susan Falkoff, took Kaup up on the offer, and was impressed enough to schedule a volunteer event at the pantry on president Obama’s National Day of Service in 2009.

"The work Kaup and her volunteers did was extraordinary; I was so impressed with the cultural sensitivity and care they took with their work," Falkoff said.

However, Falkoff said that she had not heard from Kaup or any of the volunteers about the difficulties faced in the director position.

"It’s never been brought to my attention," Falkoff said.

Kaup said she has always tried to work with the administration of the Council on Aging and felt that the matter would be a low priority for town officials.

"Years ago, Watertown used to have a social worker, but that position is long gone, and someone needs to help," Kaup said. "Maybe someone young and energetic, someone who has studied social work in school, could make a better go of it than me in 17 hours a week. I don’t know."

Fox said that the Council on Aging has begun meeting with the town’s personnel department to find a new food pantry director.

For herself, Kaup said she is considering other jobs in the public sector, but has one idea that she hopes to pursue most.

"I’d love to write a children’s book about food pantries, to teach kids about their importance," Kaup said.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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