Serving those in need: Volunteers keep soup kitchen going

This article originally appeared in the Daily Journal.

Article published Mar 1, 2007

Serving those in need: Volunteers keep soup kitchen going
By JOSEPH P. SMITH, Staff Writer

MILLVILLE — Lunch was served and well on its way to being consumed when Liz Rowe left the serving table to grab a chair and a rest at one of the few empty tables in Bethel AME Church’s hall.

Rowe, 63, is among a “hard core” of volunteers who supply the labor for a twice-a-week soup kitchen and food pantry at Bethel.

“Somebody has to,” Rowe said in a recent interview, looking around at the 40-plus people in the church hall. “When we see they are hungry or cold, when they eat two or three plates of food, you realize they haven’t eaten in days. That hurts your heart.”

When not serving hot meals created in the church kitchen, volunteers are packing paper shopping bags with food for people to take home.

In January, volunteer Virginia McBride said, 399 people came here for a hot meal and 607 for bags of food.

“We come here maybe once a week,” Lori Walker said, sitting at a table with her 3-year-old granddaughter, Joh’nasya Walker. “It’s a big help. You meet nice folks, learn about God.”

Bethel AME Church, the oldest black church here, has been feeding people for more than eight years. Starting this month, in a move that admittedly will stretch its capabilities, the church is adding a third day of operation.

The Rev. Charles E. Wilkins Sr. said the demand long ago reached a point where two days clearly is not enough. That has something to do with the lack of other nearby providers, he said.

“We’ve been talking about it for six months,” Wilkins said. It “takes some pre-planning. If you had to pay these folks, we’d be closed today.”

But another factor is the church is attracting people who shy away from other soup kitchens and food pantries. Some food providers require those they help to provide a lot of personal information.

“I think anybody who is doing this deserves a medal because it’s not easy,” Wilkins said. “We’ve got small churches that started just as we did. When we started, we didn’t get a dime from anybody. We put our pennies together and went out to a grocery store. And we fed folks until we ran out of food. And there are some churches still doing that,” he said.

“The sad thing about it is, I don’t think the government is paying enough attention,” he added. “If we close — look around.”

At first, most of the people coming in were senior citizens and a few homeless men. The lunch crowds are larger and more diverse group: single men, single mothers, grandmothers raising grandchildren and a steady segment of senior citizens.

Wilkins said that for seniors the church hall is partly a “safe haven.” Conversation is relished as much as the meal, he said.

“I’ve had people walk in and say, ‘Well, I’m surprised — an African American church and it’s not mostly African American,'” Wilkins said. “People are hungry no matter what color they are. You know? It’s ridiculous. You try to treat people right and God provides the rest.”

Jackie Forman, 42, and his nephew Allen, 20, shared a table and left with a bag of food under their arms. They try to come twice a week.

“I just started coming within probably two months,” Jackie Forman said. “I think it is a very special program. It’s helpful to the community.”

“Exactly,” his nephew said.

“But it’s the fellowship, too,” his uncle added.

Rowe and fellow volunteer Shirley Winrow, the operation’s chef, said some people who come are in serious trouble.

One recent walk-in, a woman in her early 20s, was too afraid to stay even though she was starving. Volunteers let her leave with a plate of food.

“It was a Monday,” Rowe said. “We weren’t even preparing food.”

“It makes you think you are blessed to help someone else and see others are not so fortunate,” Winrow said.

Another woman, Rowe said, was nine months pregnant and clearly hadn’t eaten well in days.

“She ate three plates,” Rowe said. “To be pregnant and that hungry. You know if you don’t come somebody may not be getting that.”

The church has a secular backup organization. Bethel Development Corp., a 501-C3 nonprofit, was formed by the church to get the technical expertise and standing to go after grants and access to food banks.

Wilkins deplored a lack of greater community involvement and cooperation.

Wilkins said the program almost had to close in 2006. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the source of much of the food and there were budget cuts.

Tri-County Community Action Agency, which rents part of the building for a day-care center, stepped in with a weekly food shipment from its “gleaning” program. The agency collects from area farms crops that otherwise would not be picked.

Albert Kelly, the agency’s director, also sits on the Bethel Development board.

“There are some organizations that receive food in this community that have not even made an effort to reach out to us,” he said. “Don’t want to insult anybody, but if you’re stockpiling food and they’re running out, I think that’s about as close to a sin as you can get. And they’ll know who I’m talking about, I’m sure. I’m not trying to be a troublemaker or anything like that. It’s just fact.”