Frances Balaam has been helping people for well over a half-century.
Now in her mid-80s, Balaam spent her early adult life teaching home economics at Lafayette Junior High School in Los Angeles County. She moved north when her husband got a job as a teacher in Durham in the 1950s.
Though she stayed home to raise her two daughters, she soon became heavily involved in Head Start programs, helping to run preschools for underprivileged children. She eventually rose to become Head Start’s health and nutrition coordinator for Butte and Glenn counties in the 1970s. When she retired from that job, she started doing more volunteer work for her current group, the venerable Catholic Ladies Relief Society.
“We try never to turn anyone down,” says Balaam from her Wednesday-morning shift at the local community food locker office located at 1386 Longfellow Ave. “It keeps me busy and fills a need in the community.”
In 1920, the regional Catholic Diocese in Sacramento opened a relief society, its third, in Chico (the first two were based in Sacramento and Marysville). The group began operating its food locker in 1984 out of an office on Nord Avenue. It provides bags of canned food and other goods to the needy up to four times a year.
Inside the office rooms, canned goods and cereal line a number of large shelves. Up to 40 rotating volunteers stock grocery bags, which are labeled for the number of dependents in a family, from one to eight. When necessary, the group also provides referrals to various homeless organizations and other helping groups—even providing lodging themselves when possible.
The group relies on donations and annual relief drives, the two main ones being the Boy Scout food drive, which just took place on Nov. 17, and the postal employee food drive, a national drive. The group also receives minimal funding from the United Way agency. The support of local churches as well as the Interfaith Council also helps.
Balaam doesn’t like to take much credit for her countless hours of work for the needy. Instead, she points to others in the room who she says are just as deserving.
“This is my true love,” says co-worker Mary Dowd. “I’ve been volunteering 15 years and have always wanted to help poor people. This is the nearest I can get to them … It’s a little defeating to the ego just to walk in here, so when someone comes in crying, it’s great to send them out with a smile or a laugh.”
Dowd says there are always some people who want to take advantage, but most just need a helping hand. She says society members don’t push the church aspect.
“If you’re hungry, what’s the difference in what you believe? The other day I had an intoxicated man show up, and I asked him to leave. All he wanted was a can of beans, so we gave it to him outside and told him to come back when he wasn’t drunk. He said I ‘sounded just like his mother,’ “ recalls Dowd with a smile.
Meanwhile, Balaam will continue doing what she has done for so many years now: teaching by example and providing for as many people as she can. The phone number for the office (which is easily reached from downtown by bus) is 895-8331, and the normal hours are Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.