Jack and Jane Zilly accept donations for the St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church food drive in the driveway of their South Russell home. They have been hosting the food drive at their home since the beginning of the pandemic.

Jack and Jane Zilly have been generously helping Northeast Ohioans in need for more than three decades. For the last two years, the couple have been offering up the driveway of their South Russell home to collect donations for a local food pantry.

Early last year, a dear friend of the Zillys, Bob Fay, who had been running the food pantry, handed over his duties to them. Mr. Fay approached them and asked them to “take this ball and run with it,” Mr. Zilly said.

“We [decided to] revitalize [the food donation program] and we started to promote it, market it, get everybody all excited about it,” Mr. Zilly, 72, said.

“Jack and I decided in January of 2020 that we would take over the food pantry at St. Joan of Arc,” Mrs. Zilly, 70, said of the Catholic church in Chagrin Falls. “We had a meeting with the people that had already been working on the committee. It was a real love for this really good friend of ours and he was no longer able to do it, so we thought, ‘we’ve got to do it.’”

Mr. and Mrs. Zilly met with the committee to get started on their new ministry, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“The church closed,” Mrs. Zilly said. “We decided that we couldn’t just cut off the food supply to the pantry. We realized that a lot of people were unemployed,” she said. “It was a double whammy for them. No food in the food pantry, no jobs to go out and buy their own food so we just decided that we had to continue it.”

Mr. and Mrs. Zilly spend each Thursday from 10-11 a.m. welcoming neighbors, collecting donations and loading their trunks with food to transport to the pantry. Because the donations are taken to St. Joan of Arc immediately, the Zillys have been able to collect perishables, which had not been possible before.

“They drop [donations] off for that hour, then we fill up our car and drive them right over to [St. Joan of Arc’s] refrigeration,” Mrs. Zilly said. Helyne Walker, director of the Chagrin Falls Park Community Center food pantry, suggested that she provide a list of items the pantry needs, Mrs. Zilly said.

So, they do a list each week.

“On Mondays, we send out a list of things [Helyne is] needing in her pantry,” Mrs. Zilly said.

Mr. and Mrs. Zilly said their donation drive was an extra blessing during times of quarantine and social distancing because it gave people the opportunity to be social for an hour each week.

“The response has been terrific, especially during the heavy time of COVID,” Mr. Zilly said. “We’d be out there in a snowstorm and there would be 20 people with a mask on. Not only did they deliver meals or a donation, but just to have that one hour of social interaction [was a great opportunity] for everyone to get together,” he said.

“We had no idea when we started that it was going to be that extensive and people were so generous,” Mrs. Zilly said. “We’re the lucky ones because we get to take the food to the pantry and see Helyne Walker’s response.”

“The good news is, we’ve been doing this for plus 80 weeks and, starting in December, we’re going to move everything back to the church,” Mr. Zilly said of the weekly collections.

The donations given to the church on the weekends will be non-perishables, but Mr. and Mrs. Zilly plan to continue to collect donations that include perishables on Thursday mornings in St. Joan of Arc’s parking lot just off of East Washington Street.

The Zilly family began their outreach when they moved from Connecticut to Northeast Ohio in 1989 and were searching for a Catholic church. In finding St. Joan of Arc, Mr. Zilly said they found “a network of not only friends and interested people, but ministries.”

The two became involved with the Hunger Center at St. Patrick’s Church in Ohio City 30 years ago. Today, the program is called St. Pat’s Evening Meals.

“We’ve been doing that for over 30 years and then there was a period there for about 20 that Jane and I kind of led the St. Joan of Arc church response to that effort,” he said.

Mr. and Mrs. Zilly would gather ingredients and volunteers and make meals from scratch for the ministry. “Back in the day, we had 600 people showing up,” Mr. Zilly said. “Now, it’s probably around 200.” Although they no longer lead this specific ministry, they are still active participants. “We still show up. I do all the cooking, I’m a cook. Jane and I, we work in the kitchen.”

Mrs. Zilly explained that they began localizing their ministry in the Chagrin Valley a few years ago.

“My feeling is, if everybody [takes part in] their local area, everybody will be taken care of,” she said.

“We find ourselves at this stage in life in a great neighborhood, great friends, good health, kids are married, grandchildren; we’re in kind of a good spot right now and we found ways to help and serve people and we’re really blessed,” Mr. Zilly said.

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