Once a food bank recipient, today a staffer at the same food bank, Margarita Peralta knows firsthand how much better it is to give than to receive.
“I remember as far back as when I was eight, when my mom would take me to the Catholic Charities food pantry in Washington Heights and, unlike at the store, they’d give us all this stuff for free. Then we’d go home and my mom would line everything up on the table – tuna, chicken, rice, beans.
“We were happy but still it felt weird. I wondered what it would be like to be on the other side, to be the one giving the food instead of getting it.”
Now she knows.
The first in her family to go to college, Margarita took time off from her junior year at SUNY Potsdam to nurse her dad whose health has been eaten away by diabetes.
To fill out her days, she volunteered at the same food pantry she and her mom used to visit. She helped Catholic Charities computerize its once manual food tallies, working so hard and so often at registering new clients that Catholic Charities recently offered her a full-time job.
Evolving from recipient to volunteer to staffer, she offers a special perspective on the benefits and challenges related to each role.
Her parents were hard working immigrants from the Dominican Republic who never wanted to ask for help, she says. But illness diverted their race towards the American dream.
Her mother, a home health aide, had to quit her just-above minimum wage job to regularly rush Margarita as a child to the E.R. for treatment for sickle cell anemia, a chronic disease shared by one out of every 20 Dominican New Yorkers.
Her father, meanwhile, once a supermarket delivery driver, had his vision and much of his kidney function stolen by diabetes, another illness that strikes 10-percent of New York state’s population.
“He was always a working man but lost his license because he can barely see,” Margarita says, grabbing a napkin to cover her tears. “It’s a shock to see him go from being so active to just lying in bed.”
She inherited her parents’ work ethic, donating more than 100 hours to the food pantry during the winter months.
“I like the environment, the way staff and people served are so close and friendly,” she says. “It feels like a big family.”
She likes it so much, she added, that she plans to transfer to a city college so she can continue working for Catholic Charities, complete her studies and care for her dad.
“It brings joy when I know that I’m feeding someone that can’t feed themselves. Because my mom, dad and I have been in that position, it’s interesting to now see how for others, also, a bag of food can make someone so happy.”