Thursday, December 2, 2010

Soldier in war on hunger devotes self to community service

By Valerie Zehl • • December 1, 2010, 6:50 pm

Volunteers Mary Ellen Wynnyk and Mary Kelly flank 'Kathy Pfaff' at the Main St. food pantry on Wednesday. The waiting room was full, with standing room only. (VALERIE ZEHL/Staff Photo)
Just call her Kathy Pfaff.

She mimes surprise when somebody actually spells her name right -- and with an 11-letter name that includes three f's, maybe she should be astonished.

Not much else surprises her these days, though. Kathleen Pfaffenbach, of Binghamton, has been on the front lines of the fight against local hunger for decades. Working for Catholic Charities as emergency services coordinator is a position she says is not a job, but a calling.

In the corporate world, she and Ed Blaine would be competitors, jockeying for the opportunity to rack up customer numbers.

But in the world of social service, she and Blaine, who's employed by the Broome County Council of Churches and runs the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse, attend mass together every morning at St. James Church and work shoulder-to shoulder as fellow soldiers in the same war.

"She doesn't just provide food for her clients, she really cares how they're doing," Blaine said. "She knows them on a first-name basis and checks on them from time to time. It's not just a job for her, it's a real service she does, a real ministry."

Now that she and husband Dan, 59, have launched four children into the adult world (all six of them Seton graduates), their own galaxy pretty much revolves around service.

Not that she's a saint herself, though many might argue. Just ask Dan, who has been married to her almost 40 years.

"When I vacuum, I can line her shoes up on the stairs by pairs, and they just about reach to the second floor," he said.

OK, she's bad about putting away her shoes, she admitted.

"And I'm obsessive," she said. "Things have to be done my way."

Bill Wynnyk, of Binghamton, who has volunteered at her side the last 18 years, nodded his head as he listened nearby.

"She says 'jump,' and I ask how high," he said -- but then made it clear he's joking.

Dan, now retired from his own trucking business, is one of the 100 or so volunteers who pitch in at the food pantry at 100 Main St. in Binghamton or Mother Teresa's Cupboard on Garfield Avenue in Endicott, the only two local pantries run by Catholic Charities and coordinated by his wife.

Her office is tucked in to a pocket of the Main Street site, though she's not often sitting in her chair.

On Tuesday, she manned a table at a community resource fair, talking to all comers about ways Catholic Charities can help them.

Anthony Esposito, a student teacher working on his master's degree at Binghamton University, donated time through Catholic Charities in his hometown in Westchester County.

"We need you here, too," Pfaffenbach told him. "We have many ways you can volunteer."

He walked away with a brochure.

She usually finds herself talking to those who need help rather than those eager to give it."We make sure they're receiving food stamps, the elderly, especially, who are so reluctant," she said. "If there's a referral we can make, we do."

She goes as far as making WIC appointments for those with young children. She's a registered nurse and could work in a doctor's office or hospital. Instead she chooses to pursue this calling.

"The poor will be with you always," she reminds herself on a hard day. Then she reminds herself of another vital fact: She's no miracle worker.

She's just Kathy Pfaff.

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