Marsha Mercer 2016-04-14 01:13:08
Pantry in Virginia feeds thousands and treats those in need like friends. By 8:45 a.m., the gravel lot outside the Wilderness Food Pantry run by the Lake of the Woods Lions Club in northcentral Virginia is full of cars. That’s no surprise—it’s a used car lot. Look again. People are sitting in dozens of the parked cars. The food pantry will open at 9 today, and clients already are waiting for their numbers to be called. Near the site of the Battle of the Wilderness of the Civil War, the Lake of the Woods (LOW) Lions and Lioness clubs have been fighting hunger for 18 years, one person, one family, at a time. The Lions’ war on want started small but has expanded since the Great Recession as more people struggle to put food on their tables. Pantry co-chair Betty Beck, who’s both a Lion and a Lioness, has volunteered at the pantry for nine years. She has seen factories close, housing construction drop and the need for food steadily rise. “It’s grown so much,” she says. “Fortunately, more and more people have been volunteering.” Lake of the Woods is a gated community located 5 miles from the pantry, housed in two trailers. Nearly all the LOW Lions live in the community, and many are government or military retirees from the Washington area. The Lions generally are well-off—not the case for many others in the area. Orange County had been one of Virginia’s fastest growing counties in the early 2000s. Population rose 30 percent between 2000 and 2012 to 33,625 people. Then it was battered by the recession that started in 2008-09. Unemployment in the county peaked at 8.2 percent in 2010. Even so, a year later, American Press, a family-owned catalog and magazine publisher, closed, costing 130 jobs. Today the county’s overall poverty rate is 10 percent, but 14 percent of children under 18 live in poverty. To help 4,560 people a year get enough to eat requires a tremendous commitment of time and money. The Lions have mustered an army of 80 volunteers—20 Lions, 44 Lionesses and their husbands, and 17 others—to operate the food pantry, and that’s just one of their projects. “This is a huge community effort,” says Lion David Francis, pantry co-chair with Beck. Volunteers devote nearly 3,300 hours a year to collecting and distributing about 110,000 pounds of food. Lions use their own vehicles every day to pick up food from Food Lion, Wal-Mart or the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank. They spend hours filling out paperwork, helping clients, making the pantry sparkle. “It’s a part-time, full-time job,” Beck says. Pantry co-manager David Francis helps Jeff Hamlin of Orange, Virginia, pick out items. Open since February 2015, the cream-colored, modular classroom building is the pantry’s fourth location and its largest at 850 square feet. The day’s first client is Jane, a 65-year-old retiree who is raising a 15-year-old grandson. She got up extra early—5 a.m.—to catch a ride with a friend so she could wait in the parking lot and snag the No. 1 entry card. Now she walks up the steps, across the wide front porch and inside. Early birds get the best choice of the cans of fruit, vegetables, soup and juice; boxes of cereal, crackers, mac and cheese; bags of rice, beans and spaghetti; hygiene items, paper products, even catfood and dog food—all neatly arranged on the wire shelves. Jane checks in at the front counter and steers her cart along the aisles, selecting cans and boxes, toiletries, sandwich rolls and bags of potatoes and oranges. Next, meat. “Sausage? Bacon? Lamb chops? Pork chops?” Judy Johnson, a cheery volunteer who first came as a client, calls out as she moves along seven tall freezers and refrigerators. “Chicken? Hot dogs? Ham hocks?” Jane adds chicken, ham hocks and ground beef to her cart. Then, it’s time for dessert. “You can take one item off the table, baby,” Johnson says, indicating a table loaded with bakery sweets. Jane eyes the goodies for a long moment, selects a chocolate cake and murmurs, “Thank you.” Jane, who declines to give her last name, says she first turned to the pantry for groceries last year, after she retired from the book shipping company where she worked for 17 years. Standing all day, her legs had started hurting. “This helps me a lot because a Social Security check goes just so far,” she says. Most food banks simply hand a client a bag of groceries, but that can lead to people getting things they don’t need or want. The LOW Lions let people “shop.” “Our food pantry treats people with respect. There’s more dignity when people can pick out what they want,” Beck says. A volunteer accompanies each shopper. How much someone can take depends on household size and supplies on hand. Lions also deliver food to about 15 shut-ins once a month. President Stan Lasover and a pantry volunteer help arrange food items. “We treat them like friends,” Beck says. “I get worried when they don’t come in for a while.” The idea of a pantry came from Lions Dave and Carol Wick. Dave Wick died last year, and Carol now lives in Pennsylvania. “He just got the idea. People were having to drive to Fredericksburg to get food,” Carol says. Fredericksburg is about 35 minutes from Locust Grove. The Lions set up the first pantry right outside the gates of the LOW community in 1998 and delivered food to a few families. Orange County supervisor Jim Crozier lived at LOW at the time and recalls there was a “pretty good recession.” He says, “Churches back then were congregation-based, as far as assistance goes. If you weren’t a member of the church, it was hard to get help. The Lions saw a need.” The food pantry moved to a semi-trailer next to a hardware store in 2000, then to two trailers adjacent to the Locust Grove Town Center. The new pantry is also across from the center, a shopping strip plaza with an Exxon station, Fanon Motor Cars, a Dollar General, a collection of momand- pop shops, four cafes and a church. The center’s owner lets the pantry use the land for free. “This is much nicer than what we had. It’s larger, heated better and cooled better,” says Francis, who joined the pantry team two years ago and took the lead in raising money and in buying, setting up and equipping the new building, which cost the Lions $31,000. The pantry opens from 9 a.m. to noon three days and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. two days a month. People can also pick up fresh fruits and vegetables twice a month. Besides distributing free and donated food, the pantry buys canned goods from the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank for 19 cents a pound. Food costs about $13,000 a year. The club also spends about $5,600 annually for utilities, a portable toilet and other expenses. The pantry might be a full-time job, but the Lions also manage to sponsor Leo clubs at the local middle and high schools, award scholarships and teacher grants and run an active eyeglass collection program. LOW Lions processed 54,000 pairs of eyeglasses in a recent year. To raise funds, the Lions rely on cash contributions. But they also collect, clean and sort donated furniture and household items which are dis played at a warehouse at the lake. They hold yard sales there every Saturday. People can borrow medical equipment including wheelchairs, walkers, canes and boots, as needed. The LOW Lionesses sponsor an annual flea market and bring canned goods for the pantry to their meetings. In case there’s any doubt, the pantry runs on generosity. Lion Jim Buongiovanni, who co-chaired the pantry for six years, drove more than 2,000 miles a year, picking up and delivering food when gas was $3.75 a gallon. “We don’t get reimbursed. We’re volunteers,” he says. Buongiovanni, 80, has a bad back, which wasn’t helped by lifting tons of food. He resigned last year as co-chairman. But he still volunteers, preparing tax returns through AARP. An electrical contractor, he also does electrical work for the food pantry for free. The pantry distributes about 110,000 pounds of food annually. Fortunately, the local economy is brightening and jobs are coming back. A Wal-Mart Supercenter has opened. Unemployment has dropped to about 5 percent. Green Applications, a factory that silk-screens T-shirts and sweats, has opened and plans to hire more than 300 workers by 2017. The pantry helps ease pressure on the county social services department, Crozier says. “The Lions’ food pantry helps bridge the gap where food stamps ends,” adds Robert Lingo, director of Social Services in Orange County. “Anything you can do to support people in one arena—such as food—goes to reducing stress and strain on the family.” The pantry never turns anyone away the first time they come for food. After that, they need to go through the Department of Social Services to be certified as eligible for free food. Someone does not need to qualify for SNAP or food stamp benefits to receive food. Clients can visit the pantry twice a month, no more. Lake of the Woods, located about 70 miles south of Washington D.C., is an enclave of relative newcomers. It opened in 1964 as a weekend fishing retreat on two manmade lakes. Today, it’s the largest development in Orange County with 10,000 full-time residents, many of whom are retired government and military personnel from the Washington area. Amenities include an 18-hole golf course, two swimming pools, tennis courts, soccer and baseball fields and a clubhouse. LOW has its own church, security force and fire and rescue squad. People looking to get involved can join more than 50 clubs. The LOW Lions Club, chartered in 1982, has 89 members. “It’s a village where everybody knows everybody,” says President Stan Lasover. Many groups support the food pantry with food and money. “It’s a total endeavor of love,” says Lasover. Back at the pantry, Judy Johnson, has told the 47th— and last—client of the day about the meats on offer. Her sunny disposition hasn’t dimmed one watt. “You have a good day,” she says. “God bless you!” Johnson came for food when she had to quit her job to take care of her diabetic husband. He has lost both legs and is on dialysis three times a week. She comes to the pantry to give back and help others—and herself. “This right here—I love it,” she says and raises her arms as if to hug the pantry. Marsha Mercer is a Washington-based journalist who is happiest exploring America's back roads. Mill Closes, Pantry Opens The mill in Port Alice laid off workers, then shut down “temporarily.” “There’s no sign of it starting back anytime soon,” says Lion Teressa Cliff. The pulp mill was the major employer in the town of 800 located on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. So in September the Port Alice Lions opened a food bank in partnership with the Port Alice Thrift Store. Lions collect, transport and sort donated food as well as buy food with donations they receive. “We buy it from the local store to support them. They’re having a tough time too,” says Cliff. Some people have left town. Others in need, wanting to fend for themselves as always, are reluctant to come forward. “Sometimes through word of mouth we know someone is struggling. So we drop off a hamper without them asking,” says Cliff. Port Alice is well-acquainted with economic ups and downs and the swift response of Lions. A mill closed in 2004, and that Christmas Lions clubs throughout Vancouver Island organized a drive that resulted in a semi-truck loaded with food. Digital LION Read how Lions have fed the hungry in the past at lionmagazine.org. Utah Lions feed poor during the Depression (July 1932 LION). “Coast to Coast, Lions Put Food on Tables” (March 2008 LION)
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