Small church in upstate New York in final stretch to raise $3 million to meet town’s food-insecurity needs

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Dec 12, 2023

Church members Nancy Brown, left, and Tom Bell, along with rector the Rev. Laurie Garramone, right, stand in front of St. John’s, Johnstown, New York, with One Church Street, the future home for St. John’s food ministries behind them. Garramone is dressed as an astronaut as part of the church’s effort to raise the final $1 million needed to finish renovations of the needed space, which she has dubbed a “space mission.” Photo: Facebook/One Church Street

[Episcopal News Service] For the past 30 years St. John’s Episcopal Church has hosted the only food programs that serve the city of Johnstown, a community of 8,100 people northwest of Albany in upstate New  York – a food pantry that was started by the local Interfaith Council and a Sunday noon community meal.

In 2014 they decided those programs needed room to expand and to be accessible to people with disabilities, and in December of that year, St. John’s took the first step in making that dream a reality. For $80,000 they bought the building next door, which had housed the city’s former YMCA. They named it for its address, One Church Street, and saw it as a gift to the community.

“We signed the paperwork on Dec. 20, and the next day we put a red bow over the door of the building with a huge gift tag,” the Rev. Laurie Garramone, the church’s rector for the past 13 years, told Episcopal News Service.

Since then, an initial renovation plan estimated at $1.5 million has increased to more than $3 million, largely fueled by increases in the cost of construction materials that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, early on church leaders decided not to have the church take on any debt for this, so renovations are taking place only when funds are available to cover costs.

So far, the church – which has an average Sunday attendance of about 100 – has raised $2 million, all of it given by parishioners, community members, and local businesses and foundations. And Garramone said plans to raise the final $1 million have begun.

St. John’s members have remained committed to the construction, she said, because their food programs fill a real need in Johnstown and in Fulton County. Nearly 15% of the county’s population lives below the poverty line, meaning they earn less than $30,000 annually for a family of four. The poverty number for children is even higher, at 21%. Garramone said one in five children in the county are food insecure, which the United States Department of Agriculture defines as not always having enough food to maintain an active, healthy life. For adults, that number is one in eight. In 2022, St. John’s worked to address that need by providing a total of 44,000 meals between the two programs.

To date the $2 million raised has provided One Church Street with a new windows, a security system and an accessible entrance. It’s also funding the current work on first-floor renovations to house the food pantry, church offices and a new “food as medicine” program to teach healthy eating. Garramone said she was frustrated to learn that the price tag for completion of this phase of construction had jumped by about $300,000, but she remains certain they’ll raise that, too, and those spaces will be completed by Easter 2024.

On a mission to fund remodeling of more space

The final $1 million will remodel One Church Street’s former second-floor ballroom into a large dining room and commercial kitchen for the Sunday noon meal, so it can expand beyond the 400-plus meals it currently serves monthly. It also will provide for the installation of an elevator and the creation of a second-floor multipurpose space that will be available for use by the community. “People could have bridal showers there, or birthday parties,” Garramone said.

To make that final amount feel more manageable, Garramone suggested to the building steering committee of five church members – none of whom are professional fundraisers – that they break $1 million into smaller pieces. The church now is seeking 1,000 people or businesses to each give $1,000, an effort to finish the space that she dubbed a “space mission.”

To help make the point in a fun way, Garramone bought an astronaut suit online for $80, complete with helmet, which debuted on Nov. 28 during the church’s “Giving Tuesday” effort that came with a community-focused twist. To express their thanks for the support provided by people in Johnstown, she and church members Tom Bell and Nancy Brown handed out 200 breakfast bags across town. They sometimes tapped on the windows of cars stopped at red lights to offer food gifts back to the community.

Volunteers prepare the Sunday community meal on Nov. 26 in the cramped basement kitchen at St. John’s. Renovations to One Church Street will include a modern commercial kitchen and expanded, accessible seating for diners. Photo: Facebook/One Church Street

She since has worn the suit to speak with high school students beginning a food drive, and while she knows it’s a gimmick, it’s both fun for her and attracts attention. “It helps our community connect with our real, genuine and essential ‘mission’ of nourishing our neighbor,” she said. So far, they’ve raised $100,000 toward the final $1 million goal.

While the thought of eventually having raised more than $3 million still amazes her, Garramone said as someone with virtually no fundraising experience, she along with her congregation have simply been doing their best to live out what together they see as God’s calling to serve others.

“We know that to feed people who articulate a need for food creates an expansive vision of the kingdom of God as it is lived out here on Earth, and specifically in Johnstown, New York,” she said. “Access to good, nutritious food is a physical, ethical, practical and spiritual necessity, and our prayer is that we are meeting the needs of our guests in each of those ways.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.