Trista Garcia was still adjusting to life as a newly single mom when she moved to Detroit Lakes.
She returned to Minnesota about two years ago with her seven young children in tow, after living out of the country for several years. They arrived at Garcia's parents' home in Wadena with little more than a couple of suitcases in hand.
Their first year back in the States was a year of major transition. With the support of her parents, Garcia intensively homeschooled her five older children to get them on par with the public school system. She also worked outside the home part-time at the Wadena Walmart.
After relocating to Detroit Lakes about a year ago, she was able to transfer to the Walmart here, so she didn't have to search for a job, but in just about every other aspect of life she was starting from scratch. She moved here because she found an affordable home for her family, but she still needed furniture for that home, plus daycare for her two youngest kids, after-school care for her older kids, and a solid plan for her family's future.
With no other family or friends in town, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband out of the picture, she was doing it all on her own.
It wasn't easy, but she made it work. As she got herself and her kids settled, Garcia stretched every dollar of her bare-bones budget as far as it would go. She made sure there was food on the table, but meals were basic. The kids had clothes on their backs, but most of their pants had holes in the knees, and their shoes were falling apart.
When she looks back on it now, Garcia says it must have been obvious to other people that her family was struggling, but the situation was so familiar to her that she hardly noticed. For her, it was just life as usual.
"We lived on next to nothing for so many years that you get used to living without-you get used to making it by," Garcia said. "You don't realize how things actually look until you're forced to look at it."
That realization started to come to her as the community began reaching out to her. Garcia and her children were the recipients of some unexpected charitable gifts around Christmastime, one of which was a monetary donation from the Detroit Lakes Ruby's Pantry.
Most people know Ruby's Pantry for its food distribution program, but the nonprofit also donates money to other charitable causes in the communities it serves. About 10 percent of the donations it receives from users go back out into the community.
"The gift was given to me for the purpose of buying clothing," Garcia said, and she's used it for that. She bought herself a much-needed winter coat, and her kids have all gotten pants, shirts, shoes, jackets and more. She's made the most of the money by shopping at discount and thrift stores, and still has some dollars set aside for summer clothes and back-to-school shopping.
"It's been a really big help," she said. "It had been a hard year."
She thinks she was chosen for the donation because her church family saw a need and took action. Garcia and her kids attend True Life, which sponsors the local Ruby's Pantry in partnership with M State.
Since Ruby's Pantry started in Detroit Lakes 16 months ago, the program has made donations to other service organizations in town, it's donated fuel and grocery cards to people in need, and it's made two larger monetary donations to individuals, including the one to Garcia.
That gift "was really surprising to me," said Garcia. "Coming into a small community...if you're not from the area and you don't know anybody, it's really hard to feel like you're a part of the community. So I was gifted that money (and she got another, separate donation around that time, too), and it just struck me as really overwhelming, to realize that that many people actually noticed my family... I'm really grateful for being thought of in that way."
Ruby's Pantry is a faith-based organization that holds monthly "pop-up pantries" in a number of locations around Minnesota and Wisconsin. For a $20 donation, a customer can get enough food to fill up two big boxes or laundry baskets; there are no income or resident restrictions. At every location, volunteers from a local church are always heavily involved.
Trevor Janich, the senior pastor at True Life, said the church handles a lot of the up-front operations of the Detroit Lakes pantry, and oversees its financials, while M State hosts the food distributions and takes care of "behind-the-scenes stuff" like unloading the food trucks and getting things set up. Other volunteer groups from the community help out sometimes, too, such as the local FFA and Boy Scouts. Janich said there are about 50-60 volunteers around on any given distribution night.
Food distributions are held the second Monday of every month at M State, at Door E5, from 5:30-7 p.m. Janich said the foods offered are a little different every month, but their value easily exceeds the $20 donation people make to get it. There's usually a mix of meats, snacks, dairy products, juices, bread, dressings and more.
The pantry is intended to work as "a hand up, not a hand out," Janich said. It's meant to help people stretch their grocery dollars and "get out of their daily grind."
Janich said the Detroit Lakes pantry serves an average of 300 people a month, including a number of M State students, local families, and individuals of all ages and walks of life. Any food left over at the end of a distribution night is given to the Becker County Food Pantry.
Ruby's Pantry has come a long way since its first distribution, Janich said, operating more efficiently and with shorter wait times for customers. People who use the service often comment on the high quality of the food and the friendly volunteers.
"I think it's very successful," he said. "I think the fact that people keep coming back shows that the need is continually there."
It's certainly been there for Garcia, especially when she first moved back to Minnesota. She used to regularly get food from the Ruby's Pantry in Menahga while she and her kids were still living with her parents.
"That helped me," she said. "You get a lot of food from that."
Today, she's using the pantry less and less. Thanks to other charitable and public assistance programs, support networks and her own drive and ambition, Garcia is managing a little better these days-though she's still a long way from Easy Street. She's now teaching English as a Second Language for a company online while attending school at M State, and she plans to transfer to Moorhead State University in the fall to obtain a degree in music. She wants to become a private music instructor.
For more information on Ruby's Pantry, or to volunteer, visit www.rubyspantry.org.