From an early age, Dorothy Blanchette knew how hard it could be for poor families to get enough to eat. She came from a comfortable home in rural Massachusetts, where her parents kept big vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. They weren’t wealthy, but never went hungry.

The same couldn’t be said for her childhood friends next door, who would occasionally sneak into the garden to take food to eat. Whenever that happened, her father told her to turn away and pretend she didn’t see.

That memory has always stuck with her, Blanchette said.

“I think everyone brings into their vocation, or their avocation, experiences from when they grew up,” she said.

Based on that early experience, it is no surprise that these days Blanchette, 70, helps lead a team of volunteers as president of the Falmouth Food Pantry. When she and other volunteers took over the operation eight years ago, she lobbied the town to give the organization space in the former police station next to the town hall, so it could move out of the basement of a local Baptist church.

Two years ago, she helped expand the pantry from two small rooms to a warren of storerooms and small offices. The pantry now feeds 500 families a year from Portland, Westbrook, Cumberland and Yarmouth.

The pantry is only open a few days a month, but organizing volunteers, keeping it stocked with donations and securing grant funding is a full-time job for Blanchette, a retired teacher.

For her, the pantry is more than just a way to distribute food – it helps her connect to people who are struggling. Volunteers bring clients through the rooms, help them pick out food and toiletries, and learn about their lives. There is a small private room to talk to people who might be in crisis. The pantry delivers supplies to about 45 homes, and Blanchette likes to see where people live and find other ways she can help, like connecting them with other social services or education programs.

Helping others doesn’t stop at the pantry doors. Blanchette made a career out of helping people with mental illness, then troubled students as a junior high art teacher. She has always opened the doors of her home to people in need. Sometimes, her dedication to people came out spontaneously, like the winter day when she ran after a homeless man in Portland to give him her spare pair of gloves.

“I’m a busybody, I guess,” she said, laughing. “I like to stick my nose in other people’s business.” Her husband, Tim, who died last year, was the same way, she said, working hard in the multiple sclerosis community and as a peace activist.

As Maine’s refugee and asylee community has grown, Blanchette has gravitated to helping them specifically. The food pantry tries to stock halal meat and has signs in Arabic. Blanchette assists asylum-seekers until they get approval to stay in the U.S. and has made long-lasting friendships with families from Iraq, Rwanda and Burundi. A long solo trip she made through Asia in the 1970s, and the experience of running out of money in Australia and having to find a job helps explain Blanchette’s desire to learn from other cultures.

“I’ve never been intimidated by someone who is different,” Blanchette said. “They have the same needs, the same goals for their children, the same heartaches and joys.”

With all her work – including a part-time job babysitting her grandchildren – Blanchette doesn’t have much time to work on her other passions, such as portrait painting. But she doesn’t mind.

“I think it helps me just as much as the people I work with,” she said. “You have to find something you are passionate about and follow through with it.

“And have fun, because it really is fun.”

Mainers to be thankful for

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