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story.lead_photo.caption Volunteers and staff at the Conway Ministry Center’s Storehouse Client Choice Pantry in Conway unload food from donated shopping carts and sort them for distribution to area families. - Photo by Francisca Jones

Thanksgiving is Thursday, but volunteers at the food pantry of Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Little Rock have been handing out food associated with the day of gratitude and abundance for three weeks.

Nov. 2 was the first day turkeys, packets of gravy mix and cans of cranberry sauce were among the foods distributed, said David Mann, a commercial-property owner and Boy Scout troop leader who donates some of his time at the pantry.

That Thursday, the pantry gave out 45 turkeys. It wasn't advertised, said Mann, but the next week, the turnout of people resulted in the food bank giving out 124 turkeys, while families of two or single claimants received packages of turkey breasts.

Volunteers at the food pantry of Saint Mark's work year-round to make sure food -- 4,000-6,000 pounds a month -- is distributed to eligible Little Rock residents. Mann is one of 20 to 25 volunteers who each week makes runs to Arkansas Foodbank, area restaurants and grocery stores. Volunteers also sort foods, admit clients and verify eligibility of newcomers, and fill bags with food for families in need.

"We [hear] stories from people ... working and not making enough money," Mann said. "People that are on chemo. Grandparents that are taking care of their children's children because the parents are in jail. There are couples [in which] both work, and they still can't make ends meet."

Margaret Kelly, 77, has led the pantry since its beginnings in May 1998 at Little Rock's First Christian Church, with her husband, Chuck, 80, often accompanying her.

"The Episcopalians just took us off the street and gave us a place to be" after their church building was sold to Access School last year, Kelly said.

The pantry reopened at Saint Mark's in May 2016, and most of those who volunteer are retirees, and they all are dedicated, Mann said.

"[The volunteers] love it," Kelly said. "They treat it like a job -- they're here every week. It's become part of their routine."

A CALL TO HELP

Jimmy Glover of Vilonia was already volunteering at other area organizations and said he had been "praying for the doors to be opened" for more opportunities to serve his community.

That opportunity came along in September when Glover, 57, was laid off from his job of 20 years as a commercial truck driver.

Glover lives in a trailer that belonged to his parents. He moved in after his father died of a heart condition, and lived with his mother, Bobbie Jo Glover, for another seven years -- until the F3 tornado that went through the area Dec. 18, 2002, a day that remains very fresh in his mind.

He later learned that day had been a "regular routine" for his 82-year-old mother. She had mailed out letters to friends and family, some with pictures enclosed. A neighbor that had talked with her later told Glover that his mother expressed that she'd been feeling well, had eaten and was planning to "climb in Daddy's big recliner" and take a nap.

Bobbie Jo Glover's body was found 800 yards from the trailer "in a big open field," Glover said. She was the only person to die as a result of the tornado.

On the Friday of the week he was laid off, Glover came to the Conway Ministry Center in Conway and told the staff he had three things to offer: "A [commercial driver's license], a good driving record and a servant's heart."

After he passed the necessary background checks -- and after the week's clients had finished visiting the pantry -- Glover was allowed to pick up food items as a family of one from the ministry center's Storehouse Client Choice Pantry. His unemployment insurance will last for 20 weeks, and is enough to pay the bills, he said, but not enough for gas or groceries.

"The ladies ... helped me go through [the pantry] and they loved on me the same way that they love on everybody that walks through the door," Glover said. "And it just broke my heart, but in a nice way."

FOODBANK A GODSEND

Arkansas Foodbank, which has been in existence more than 30 years, supplies area pantries such as Saint Mark's with food supplies for pennies on the dollar. Saint Mark's spends an average of $1,500 a month on food from the food bank, according to Mann, but also receives individual monetary and food donations, and is partnered with area restaurants and grocery stores.

One of the things the food pantry prides itself on is that the content of the bags vary according to what clients need or will eat.

"It's not just the same thing for every bag," Mann said. "Our volunteers try to think about, 'They have three kids between the ages of 3 and 7, and they're going to like this,' ... things like oatmeal and applesauce. We try to customize a bit."

The Storehouse adheres to a client-choice model, which Spring Hunter, executive director of the center, settled on after visiting a pantry in Oklahoma City that also let clients choose, to an extent, what foods they took.

"A lot of times people that are hurting or in need, their choices are taken away," said Laura King, director of development and public relations at the center. The approach at some pantries is "'Well, you'll take this because you're hungry,'" she said, whereas at the Storehouse, parents keep their rights "to choose what's best for them or what their kids like. This is like giving them dignity back in that they're still part of our community. It's empowering for them.

"Some of our clients say, 'This is the only place we get to choose stuff that our kids like.'"

Instead of providing filled bags, the Storehouse lets clients "shop" in a small room lined with stocked shelves. Each person is given a card, which King called "a grocery list without the items," that indicates the number of items of each type, such as grains, that people can choose based on their family size.

As with Saint Mark's, the pantry also buys discounted food from Arkansas Foodbank and also receives individuals' donations -- which can be random.

People will donate "hodgepodge" items from time to time, King said, "but we love the hodgepodge, because of what we do here. It's all based on variety, [and] we want to have lots of variety in a section."

The pantry goes through 7,000 to 8,000 pounds of food a month, feeding about 400 families in that span of time -- around 1,500 people. Some arrive in vehicles, King said, but many walk. The pantry waiting area seats 15, so when the weather is especially cold -- or hot -- some are left outside until the waiting room clears. Talks about expanding the pantry are in progress.

Volunteers are key to the ministry center's pantry. According to King, the pantry began with 15 volunteers, and 35 clients arrived on its first day in June 2016. In two weeks there were 60 clients awaiting the chance to choose food, but "as the growth came, so did the volunteers," many through word of mouth.

Monday, Glover arrived at the ministry center's pantry driving a commercial-size truck. He and two of the center's staff members methodically unloaded it. Once a (donated) grocery cart was full of food, he wheeled it into a storeroom, where volunteers began unloading the items and sorting them for eventual distribution.

"As much as this blesses our community, you ask any volunteer in here, they're going to tell you how much [volunteering] blesses them," King said. "It's a community that has no fear. It has nothing to do with the color of your skin or how much money you make or any of that, it's just ... we're broken people, and there's broken people on the other side of that door, just kind of melding together in this building.

"Your spirit's getting fed, and people's bellies are getting fed, and it just makes sense."

Photo by Francisca Jones
Jimmy Glover reclines for a moment at the Conway Ministry Center’s Storehouse Client Choice Pantry after unloading a truck newly arrived from the Arkansas Foodbank.
Photo by Francisca Jones
Laura King, director of development and public relations at the Conway Ministry Center, holds one of the cards that is given to clients visiting the center’s Storehouse Client Choice Pantry as volunteer Doris Nunn stocks shelves. Being given choices when many of their options have been taken away, said King, is empowering for clients.
Photo by Francisca Jones
Margaret Kelly, who has led the pantry at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock since it began at nearby First Christian Church in 1998, repacks bulk food in smaller bags for distribution at the church’s pantry.

Religion on 11/18/2017

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