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story.lead_photo.caption Bobby Hargis, director of Cleburne County Cares, talks about the 6,000-square-foot building under construction in Heber Springs. The food pantry and offices will be housed in the new facility, adjacent to the organization’s current thrift store and pantry. Hargis said the pantry will be closed the week of March 19 to move to the new building. The plan is to remodel the thrift store, he said. - Photo by William Harvey

When the new Cleburne County Cares building opens in a few weeks, it will do more than triple the space. The structure will offer people a new way to use the food pantry.

“We were seeing people throwing things away. If they did not want items, they were being found in dumpsters, things like beans and rice,” said Bobby Hargis, director of Cleburne County Cares. “We thought, ‘Well, let’s let them choose.’ If they don’t want it, somebody else can have it.”

A grand opening of the 6,000-square-foot food pantry and office, at 2016 Arkansas 25B N.

in Heber Springs, is scheduled for 10 a.m. April 3. The facility is on the same property as its current 2,000-square-foot building, which also has a thrift store in it.

The building’s $400,000 construction cost was paid for with thrift-store proceeds. “The money has been put back for that,” Hargis said.

“If all goes well, they should turn the building over to us at the end of the month,” he said. The pantry will be closed the week of March 19 to move, he said.

Hargis said the organization helps 400 to 500 people a month with food, clothing, furniture and utilities, an area that is increasing.

“That [utility assistance] has doubled with the cold weather we’ve had,” he said.

The pantry is open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“Normally, we give people a week’s worth of groceries when they come in,” he said.

“We’re basically for the people of Cleburne County. … If they lose their job or have medical expenses, they can come and get food and help with their utilities. It’s not a routine thing. We’re not set up to be like a food-stamp program; they can’t come every month,” Hargis said.

June Ellen Verser, one of the organization’s 110 volunteers, is an intake clerk.

“I interview everyone who comes in for whatever they need, whether it’s utilities, or rent, or food, or clothing, or furniture, medical supplies, prescription drugs — even funerals. We do help with expenses [of funerals],” Verser said. “We do anything that you are in crisis over.”

Verser said the needs have increased in the seven years she’s been there.

“Right now, utilities are the biggest need. I’ve already assisted three people this morning, one for food,” she said. Verser said she had to turn one man away because he didn’t have his “shut-off notice,” which is required.

“When they receive their disconnect notice, that’s where we come in. We help them with that, electric or gas. They usually have seven days [before service is disconnected].”

Hargis said everything the thrift store sells — furniture, clothing, toys and more — is donated by the community. The store, which was incorporated in 1986, generates $200,000 a year to fund all the organization’s programs.

The thrift store is part of the current food-pantry building. When the new building opens, the thrift store and adjacent pantry will be remodeled.

“We’re going to try to fix it up and increase our sales by a third,” he said. “We will start remodeling that probably a couple months after our food pantry opens.”

Hargis said no bids had been solicited for the remodeling project, although construction would likely start in June. He said it would take about a year to complete.

“We know basically what we want to do, but we don’t know the cost,” he said. “We want to open it up like a Walmart would be. It’s got a lot of walls and partitions that interfere. … We want to improve lighting, put in new floors and racks and things.”

Hargis said he is excited about the new facility and the different way of distributing the food.

“[The food pantry] is going to be brand-new, and we’re hoping everything works out and people like it,” he said.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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