Meet Neighborhood Coordinator Mary Garren

Notable Neighbors

Hunger relief has always been a cause dear to Mary Garren’s heart. 

“I learned about healthy eating from my mother,” says Mary, who grew up in a tiny town in Anson County, about 60 miles from Charlotte. “We had whole wheat bread, good vegetables.” 

Mary adds that, even though she wanted to pack bologna sandwiches in her school lunch, her mother had a different idea and would offer her carrot salad sandwiches – comprised of grated carrots, pecans, raisins, and pineapple and held together with mayonnaise. 

“To this day, I love a carrot salad sandwich,” she says. 

The family also had a big garden – Mary has many memories of shelling butterbeans and receiving a nickel for each cup as a reward. 

This understanding of the importance of access to fresh, healthy food led Mary to become one of PORCH’s volunteer Neighborhood Coordinators over a decade ago. More than 125 Neighborhood Coordinators for PORCH Chapel Hill-Carrboro organize monthly food collections for a neighborhood or street. They are responsible for spreading the word about the designated day for the monthly food drives, picking up donations from nearby porches, and getting the non-perishable bags of food to a central location. 

Mary has lived in Summerfield Crossing since 1988. The townhome community in east Chapel Hill consists of about 140 units. Mary’s core group of food donors represents about 10 of those units. She typically collects at least one brown paper bag of non-perishables from each contributor. But she gets a sense that some neighbors are on a budget, and she always tells them she doesn’t mind picking up a single non-perishable item from their porch. 

Now retired, Mary worked for years in UNC’s financial aid office. “I was very aware of people’s ability or inability to pay for, not only education, but the other things that go with it – food, housing, clothing, spending money, etc. That’s always been something I cared a lot about.” 

She communicates with her neighbors mostly over email, but sometimes posts to Next Door or the neighborhood’s Facebook page. She also puts out yard signs during PORCH week to remind folks to leave food out. “They are all very thoughtful about what they contribute,” she says of her neighbors, noting that she reminds them about PORCH’s list of most-needed non-perishables, which includes canned meat, canned vegetables, dried pasta, and jars of pasta sauce. 

One of Mary’s favorite parts of her longtime Neighborhood Coordinator role is seeing an army of volunteers in action, sorting and packing food, each month when she drops off her bags at Extraordinary Ventures. 

“I love seeing the young people there volunteering – it’s an early introduction into how to give back. I think that is so important,” she says. 

What would she say to someone thinking of getting involved with PORCH? 

“PORCH is such a well-run organization,” she says. “How it all works has always been a little bit amazing. … I’ve admired so much what the organizers of PORCH did and what they continue to do. I have a lot of confidence in the organization. And I feel good about what they are doing and the results that they are getting. … If they want to make a difference in hunger relief, PORCH is probably the easiest way to do it, other than sitting down and writing a check. And it will be extremely meaningful.”