A community pantry full of staples for anyone in need now sits in front of Fancy & Staple, a locally owned downtown gift shop on Broadway.
The gift shop's owner, Taber Olinger, couldn't be happier.
“So proud to host this community pantry for @forwardindiana, right in front of Fancy ... Please help us fill this cabinet full of non-perishables for those in need. It'll be accessible 24/7 to fill and take from. Let's do this friends,” Olinger wrote on her business website.
The Community Pantry is one of several local efforts in Fort Wayne over the last few months to help people cope with the pandemic. Residents are urged to take what they need while others are encouraged to fill it up with food and other supplies.
But the couple who created the Community Pantry have been involved in charitable work and doing good for 14 years, nearly since the day they met at Glenbrook Square where they both were working part-time.
Sarah Thompson, then 18, had never seen anyone who looked like Carlos Marcano, she said. She grew up in North Webster, a town she describes as “privileged,” and graduated from Wawasee High School.
An art student at IPFW, now Purdue Fort Wayne, Thompson was struggling to make the rent, and making friends in the local art community where she felt more at home than in her hometown, she said.
Marcano, a graduate of New Haven High School where he was an athlete, was working with his father, also Carlos, learning how to lay tile, porcelain and stone.
She pushed her mall co-worker one day to see if Carlos wanted to go out that night.
“He probably said something like 'sure,'” Thompson said, and the partnership began. Thompson says they are not married and she calls Marcano her boyfriend.
The Community Pantry, painted in a colorful, tropical motif by Thompson, is part of @ForwardIndiana, a new initiative, and one that was Marcano's idea. They opened another one Sunday at The Glass Act with plans for several more. The motto is “Solidarity, not Charity.”
Thompson and Marcano participated in the local protests that sprang up spontaneously at the end of May after George Floyd died in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer.
In December, Thompson and Marcano rallied with the local Philharmonic musicians, setting up a table with hot coffee as part of Food Not Bombs, a local organization that typically feeds the homeless weekly.
Residents might recognize Thompson from farmers markets and art fairs where she sells her pottery, Sarahmics Uniquely Functional Pottery, and baked goods. Her bakery, Que Sera Sarah Bakery, came about as a stress reliever, she said.
“We owned a cute little flower shop for a few years in Ossian,” Thompson said. “For my own mental health, I started baking,” and learned how to make “a really good sourdough bread.”
Soon, she was selling her baked goods at the Bloomin' Brewtique along with her pottery and flowers.
Kelly Wagers, an Ossian resident who used to pop in for coffee, said she found herself inspired by the mood in the shop.
“She also made pastries,” Wagers recalled. “I can't forget that. I'd get the coffee, talk with them and always leave happier. It was just amazing to me how two people were not just so happy together, but spreading happiness throughout the community.”
The couple's interest in the community led to a refurbished playground at Sandalwood Park, Wagers said.
Marcano, 35, said his passion for community outreach came from his family. His mother's family was Filipino and worked on pineapple plantations in Hawaii. They lived in Whitmore village, a poor, working-class community near Wahiawa.
His grandfather was a security guard who brought home bikes, fixed them and gave them away. His grandmother, known as grandmother to all, bought clothes at the Goodwill to distribute to the needy.
His father, of Puerto Rican descent from Massachusetts, met his mother, Gabrielle, when he was stationed in Hawaii and stayed there. When Marcano was 11, his family left Hawaii and came to Fort Wayne where they also had family.
At his local elementary school, Marcano said he would have been the only “non-white” student at the school if it hadn't been for “kids bused from another side of town.”
“My parents are 100% supportive,” Marcano said. “Even when I ran for office last year. They weren't surprised.” In 2020, Marcano was an unsuccessful Democratic primary candidate for the 3rd Congressional District.
During that campaign, Thompson said she realized how poverty and need were growing in the city and drew sketches documenting the experience. The campaign also planted the idea of creating the community pantry.
“Knocking on 6000+ doors from December 2019 to February 2020 allowed me to see how much people are struggling. It opened my eyes to the disparities we have right here in Fort Wayne. This was the spark. This is what 'radicalized' me,” Thompson wrote in a Facebook post.
The two search the internet to see what other communities are doing, Thompson said. To establish the first pantry, she emailed close to 20 downtown businesses to find someone who would accept the community pantry, and Olinger said yes.
“She's so talented and multifaceted,” Olinger wrote in a Facebook message. “She's an incredible cook and baker, an amazing artist and maker, and what might be her most admirable trait yet, such a giving, compassionate person. She is a true inspiration.”
Wagers said Thompson and Marcano “really do their research. When they get passionate about an idea, there's no stopping the two of them. They power right through it together. It's really inspiring.”
Thompson makes it clear it's a partnership where they both try to “see the good in everything. All the different things we've done. In order to really make change, you have to give people ways to be involved.” Volunteers have followed the couple in their various ventures.
While Thompson says it was love at first sight, Carlos says he's not sure “per se.”
“But I can't even think about being without her,” he said. “We've formed such a strong bond. Everything we do, we consult each other and try to make it work.”