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Helping Hands

For almost 60 years, and with millions of pounds of food, the Commission on Economic Opportunity has been addressing community poverty in Northeast Pennsylvania.

The Commission on Economic Opportunity’s motto is People Helping People. The saying is found again and again on their materials. It’s on the top of their website. At its core, CEO is exactly what it says it is—it’s people helping people. And according to board member Daniel McGowan, “CEO is full of the best people. Every one of them is so good.” Two standouts are Executive Director Jennifer Warabak and Director of Nutrition Programs and Resource Development Gretchen Hunt Greaves, both of whom have been with the organization for more than 20 years.

Since 1966, CEO has been working to alleviate poverty in Northeast Pennsylvania. Their staff of over 150 full- and part-time employees served an average of 17,616 people with more than a quarter million pounds of food each week of 2023. Altogether, the Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank, part of CEO’s McGowan Center for Healthy Living, distributed 16.4 million pounds of food via 356 partners offering more than 12 million meals to hungry children, adults, and the elderly. But just a few years ago, these numbers seemed impossible. Coming off of COVID, the region, like many others, suffered a severe economic blow which left thousands of households struggling. There was an extreme increase in need and demand for food assistance. A grant from the Fund helped CEO grow the existing distribution center by 15,000 square feet; the Center for Healthy Living is now 55,220 total square feet.

“Even though we’ve been here for 50 plus years, we’re still learning,” says Warabak. “The community is constantly changing, so the community’s needs are constantly changing too, and we just have to adapt to that.” CEO isn’t just a food bank, they’re a community action agency. Currently, CEO offers its community more than 20 programs from employment opportunities, to veteran services, to utility and heating assistance. “One of the things that I always try to convey to people when I talk about CEO is that CEO is not just an emergency response organization, we’re also assisting in long-term self-sufficiency. But you have to walk along the way with somebody, and sometimes that means giving them their next meal, and sometimes that means helping them with next month’s rent. It can also mean helping someone plan for getting a better job or finding childcare. We’re not just here when there’s nowhere else to turn, we’re not just handing out Band-Aids.”

Though the Weinberg Food Bank can serve as a single stop for people needing a warm meal, Hunt Greaves feels it’s best looked at as a bridge—the food bank links the community to the other services CEO offers and helps set the people who come in for food on a different path, a path where opportunity is larger than they could have imagined. “A success story for us is not just that we’ve helped a person get through the week, it’s that we’ve helped change their life and maybe their children’s lives. It’s long-term,” Hunt Greaves shares. “We’ve had many staff here over the years that have started off as somebody seeking services from us. We distribute flyers at the food bank, it really starts there. That’s where we can begin pushing information into the community because there’s such a high volume of people coming in. And we want to help each of those people, those families, as much as possible.”

“One of the most important things that CEO does is try to educate both our clients and our partners on all the services that are available to them,” adds Warabak. “My work here, it’s not just a job to me. And I know it’s not a job to Gretchen. We’re here because it’s truly what we want to wake up and do each day.”

That desire to help, to make change, to walk through difficult times hand in hand with a client, is all easily felt by those who encounter Warabak and Hunt Greaves and the other wonderful people making magic at CEO and the Weinberg Food Bank. Their dedication to their community and the hundreds of thousands that they’ve served since opening their doors has created real a true shift in what is possible for the people of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Susquehanna, and Wyoming counties, and their work will continue to open doors for this generation’s children and the next.