In a front entryway to the new east-side home of Saline Area Social Service, a sprawling bulletin board displays the photos of more than 100 volunteers who donate their time and a helping hand to neighbors in need.

Faith In Action’s sixty volunteers “run the business, really,” says FIA executive director Sarah Shugart. “They’re most people’s first point of contact.”

The Saline nonprofit and its counterpart in Chelsea and Dexter, Faith In Action, rely on a bevy of volunteers to manage food pantries that help hundreds of financially insecure people, many of them low-wage or entry-level workers.

Faith In Action’s sixty volunteers “run the business, really,” says FIA executive director Sarah Shugart. “They’re most people’s first point of contact.”

 In addition to food, both community-based social-service agencies offer other emergency aid. With the recent end of pandemic-era federal direct relief payments and emergency supplemental food assistance dollars, and with inflation nudging grocery, gas, and rent prices higher, both agencies are bracing for escalating numbers of people seeking help.

Jodi Hilberer, development manager for Saline Area Social Service (SASS), says they registered 100 additional clients within six weeks of moving into their new location at 1259 Industrial Dr. last July. Half had never received services from SASS before.

When the pandemic started, Hilberer says there was a “significant increase” in the number of people in Saline seeking help with groceries, but it leveled off as families received temporary federal support.

“But now with the food stamps and the benefits changing and inflation, I think we’re going to see an increase,” Hilberer says. Those numbers already were trending steeply upward. In 2022, SASS helped 7,836 individuals, up from 5,923 assisted in 2021.

Shugart anticipates much the same in Chelsea and Dexter. “I think we’ve started to see that change a little bit already,” she says.

Just in the last six months, the number of households receiving groceries from FIA’s two pantries has increased almost 27 percent, from 218 last October to 276 this March. The food pantries are at 603 S. Main in Chelsea and at 7651 Dan Hoey in Dexter.

With food pantries busier than ever, another well-known nutrition program, Meals on Wheels, has seen steady numbers of seniors who need meal help in Saline and Chelsea since the start of the pandemic, with an uptick in numbers in Dexter.

Senior centers in Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter run the program, which provides hot and frozen meals and sack lunches to individuals who are sixty and older, homebound, and unable to prepare their own meals.

The Chelsea Senior Center provided around 26,000 meals to homebound seniors in each of the last three fiscal years, while the Dexter Senior Center delivered 9,500 meals in 2020, about 10,000 in 2021, and almost 11,000 last year.

“We don’t invoice,” says Jennifer Smith, assistant director of the Chelsea Senior Center. “We don’t track who pays and who doesn’t either for Meals on Wheels or Senior Cafe, because, truly, there should be no barriers to somebody getting a meal if they need it.”

The Senior Cafe, which offers meals five days a week, closed for a year due to Covid-19. Smith says about twenty-five seniors who normally eat at the café but aren’t eligible for Meals on Wheels were able to get meals delivered to their homes during that time because of emergency federal funding.

In Chelsea, the meals are made in the commercial kitchen at the Chelsea Senior Center, with a staff cook and ten kitchen volunteers. Another twenty-five volunteers deliver the meals to between eighty and 100 seniors weekly living within the Chelsea School District boundaries and nearby Manchester.

In Dexter, an Ypsilanti catering company prepares the meals, and a crew of twenty-five volunteers delivers them to seniors who live within the boundaries of the Dexter School District.

SASS executive director Jamail Aikens and development manager Jodi Hilberer registered 100 additional clients within six weeks of moving into their new location.

“Even without the economic pressures, there is still a huge need,” says Gordon Smith, executive director of the Dexter Senior Center. “We’re really expanding our footprint so we can find more people.”

While both Chelsea and Dexter receive federal support for their senior meal programs, allocated through the Area Agency on Aging 1-B, plus donations, Saline operates its Meals on Wheels program solely on community contributions.

In 2020, the Saline Area Senior Center provided 7,595 meals to homebound seniors. In 2021, 8,854 meals were delivered before dropping to 8,520 outgoing meals in 2022. In all, some thirty-five seniors who live within the Saline School District boundaries receive meals, up by half a dozen from the start of the pandemic.

Saline’s suggested donation is $2.50 for a hot meal and 50 cents for a sack lunch. If seniors are unable to pay, EHM Senior Solutions, where the meals are made, absorbs the cost.

Like SASS and FIA, the senior meal delivery programs rely on volunteers. In addition to food, they often provide a vital human link to homebound seniors.

“For some of these people,” says Kathy Adamson, a retired nurse who administers the Saline program, “we are the only ones they will see all week long.”

For the first eighteen months of the pandemic, the Saline Area Senior Center worked with SASS to have bags of groceries delivered weekly to homebound seniors.

As the pandemic gripped the world in 2020, regular food-pantry users in Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter couldn’t do their own shopping. Volunteers at both SASS and FIA would fill food orders from the pantries for clients, who then would pick the groceries up curbside.

Those restrictions have since ended. At FIA and SASS, clients are again welcome to shop the food pantries, assisted by volunteers who help ensure that allotments based on family size are followed.

In Chelsea, the pantry shares space with the FIA clothing room, where families can shop free of charge up to twelve times a year. The racks of neatly hung donated clothing and shelves of shoes, children’s books and games, and household goods invite browsing.

FIA also maintains a free durable medical equipment closet where donated items, such as walkers, are available. Space also has been carved out for a shower and a washer and dryer which are available for people who are homeless or have insecure housing arrangements.


A year ago, SASS purchased a 7,800-square-foot building in the Wood Duck Business Park on Saline’s far east side. The new site greatly expands both its physical footprint—it is four times as large as its former headquarters at 224 W. Michigan Ave.—and its outreach potential.

“Our strength is getting food donations, managing volunteers, and distributing food and providing emergency assistance,” says Jamail Aikens, executive director of the private nonprofit agency.

In a capital campaign launched last fall, SASS is 83 percent of the way to reaching an $850,000 goal. The funds will pay for the new building, which cost $762,000, and some needed remodeling. It now has more than twice as much parking for clients—about forty spaces, with room to expand.

Aikens says the previous location, a two-story home, will be sold, and the proceeds will be earmarked for maintenance of the new building for the next decade or more. He expects the sale price to be in the $400,000 range.


While food pantries are a major focus of SASS and FIA, both agencies also provide an array of emergency aid and other services to families in need. Both administer these services with relatively small staffs. SASS has five full-time and two part-time employees and an annual operating budget of $656,000; FIA has six employees, five full-time and one part-time, and a budget of around $770,000.

“Most people know us for the food pantry,” says FIA’s Shugart. “And that’s how a lot of people connect with us. There are people who connect with us who don’t realize that we can also help provide some financial services.”

She notes that FIA can help with utility shutoffs, emergency rent assistance, and even car repairs so clients can get to their jobs. At the start of every school year, the children of registered clients all receive new backpacks filled with school supplies.

SASS also provides limited financial assistance with rent, energy bills, car repairs, and even prescription co-pays. It, too, helps students with backpacks, supplies, and shoes when school starts each fall.

More than half of its new building is dedicated to its food pantry, where rows of shelves hold neatly displayed cans, boxes, and bags of food. Two huge walk-in freezers and five smaller refrigerators hold dairy and meat products.

 Some shelves are filled with personal care items such as shampoo and deodorant; household basics such as toilet paper, paper towels, laundry detergent, and dish soap; and diapers and baby wipes. Family pets are not forgotten. Donations of pet food and kitty litter are tidily arrayed on a set of shelves.

This spring, twenty new shelf units were purchased with the help of Saline Middle School students, who raised $4,000 to buy and help assemble them.

SASS relies entirely on such in-kind donations and fundraising. In addition to local foundation grants and financial contributions from individuals, SASS gets regular help from the school and business communities. Its annual fall fundraiser is scheduled for September 28 at the Lake Forest Golf Club in Pittsfield Twp.

The Saline High School Honor Society and the U.S. post office in Saline conduct food drives annually and biannually, respectively. And local businesses often initiate clever fundraising campaigns, whether it’s Junga’s Ace Hardware raffling off a grill or Reinhart Realtors hosting a putt-putt golf event.

Aikens says that within the past two years, SASS, in partnership with the Foundation for Saline Area Schools, has begun to help pay for mental health counseling for Saline middle and high school students whose families are SASS clients. Currently, two students are in counseling, and they expect to have four in the fall.

Anxiety and depression among adolescents and teenagers has skyrocketed, “and there is significant demand,” Aikens says.

Both SASS and FIA receive referrals from the different threads that make up a community tapestry—churches, schools, health care and social workers, the police, and sometimes even a concerned neighbor.

“I think a lot of the services in this area, and probably throughout the whole county, are kind of like interwoven in some ways with one another,” Shugart says. “There are partners all over the whole area that work together.”


Like the volunteers who help sustain the important lifelines that FIA, SASS, and the senior centers extend to members of their communities, the partnerships with businesses and other groups are vital to keeping these agencies healthy.

 For its pantries, FIA partners with Food Gatherers, the food bank and food rescue program that serves Washtenaw County. Shugart says that almost of FIA’s meat and bakery products come from Food Gatherers, typically at a price less than what FIA would pay in a grocery store.

This year, Shugart says, Meijer stores chose FIA as a partner for its Simply Give program, which “provides thousands of dollars for us to help keep our pantry full.” She says the Meijer in Scio Twp. will match, and sometimes double, every ten dollars donated for FIA until the end of July.

At the beginning of each year, an FIA social worker meets with clients to recertify them by updating and verifying information on their financial situation and the number of people in their households. This year, FIA staff decided to start encouraging people to use the food pantry more as a way of keeping more money in their own pockets for gas or other necessities.

“Our intention was to really drive home the fact that we have this really great food pantry,” Shugart says. “We really encourage you to use it so that you can use those precious dollars elsewhere.”