Interview with Linda Zimmerman, Executive Director, and Lisa Smith, Deputy Director, Neighbors in Need

Lisa Smith (L), Deputy Director and Linda Zimmerman (R), Executive Director

Say hello to Linda, who has been the Executive Director of NIN for 17 years, and Lisa, who has served as Deputy Director for 7 years. NIN has always been a grass roots organization that has relied on its incredible team of volunteers.

Please tell us a little bit about the clients you serve. Who are they? 

Nearly half of those served are children under the age of 18 and 16% are elders. We have seen an increase in working poor families. Approximately half of our clients are suffering from chronic poverty, while the other half are in need of food due to temporary circumstances such as job loss, sudden death in the family, winter heating costs, etc.

Why did you open a diaper pantry?

Diapers are as essential to a child’s basic needs as food and shelter. Yet, state and national safety net programs do not cover diapers. The average cost of diapers is $70-$80/month. Most childcare centers, even free and subsidized facilities, require parents to provide a week’s supply of disposable diapers. Many parents cannot go to work or school if they can’t leave their babies at childcare. The economic impact of not being able to afford a week’s worth of diapers is staggering: a recent study found that parents who struggled with diaper needs missed an average of four days of work per month.

When you think of the volunteers and services you provide to the community, is there a specific event or person that comes to mind?

Rosa (not her real name) was a long-time dependable and cheerful warehouse volunteer as well as a client of our food pantry. She is a Spanish speaker and when a Spanish-speaking warehouse staff member had to step down, we offered her the paid position. We soon discovered Rosa had a background of which we were unaware: she was a foster mom that received food stamps. Based on her personal knowledge of available programs, she (and, indirectly, NIN) is able to answer questions in Spanish about each program and how to access it. Rosa shows us the value of cultural power and why we need it. We are delighted to have her on staff.

What do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment over the past year? Or what are you most proud of?

Lawrence was severely impacted by COVID, with more than 20,000 cases. As the food need grew, we expanded to meet that need. Our Grab & Go and Drive-Through Pantries (a necessary change because of the pandemic) require an army of volunteers to pack hundreds of bags of groceries and diapers each week.

This year we distributed more food than ever before – more than one million pounds! Our new food warehouse and infant program space made it possible to serve more than 5,000 families. In partnership with local farmers, food banks, and the Giving Garden (Andover), we delivered more than 200,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables in 2021. Volunteers delivered food and diapers to the homes of more than 100 families each week – including 500 COVID positive or quarantined households this year.

The need did not stop during COVID…and neither did Neighbors in Need!

What are some short- and long-term goals for the organization?

One of our goals is to collaborate with other organizations to establish one or more diaper banks throughout Massachusetts. A diaper bank would operate similarly to a food bank (e.g., Greater Boston Food Bank) where organizations providing local services, such as NIN, could access diapers and supplies at a lower cost. Presently in the legislature there is “An Act establishing a diaper benefits pilot program identified as H.206 & S125.” This bill would create a diaper insufficiency fund. If passed, funds could be used for one or more of the following purposes: 1) acquiring diapers; 2) storing diapers; 3) distributing diapers; 4) organizing diaper drives; or 5) marketing the pilot program. We testified in favor of this bill in December and it has been referred to the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. We are hopeful for passage this legislative session.

How can TPC help NIN?

Cash donations are always welcome, of course, but we also need volunteers to help pack food pantry bags in the warehouse, diaper pantry volunteers, as well as volunteers for no-contact delivery of food and diapers. We have benefited from and are grateful for several TPC volunteers who have been with us for years. Neighbors in Need can be specified as your AmazonSmile charity and/or donation purchases can be made from our wishlist on Amazon.