Alchemy at the Memphis Public Library

Note from Volunteer Odyssey: We’re featuring a series of guest bloggers who’ll share their volunteer experiences in the community. Today’s post comes from Herman P Markell – an extremely dedicated volunteer at the Memphis Public Library. 

Alchemy at the Memphis Public Library
by Herman P Markell

Everything that follows is based on the fact the Memphis Public Library System is one of the key institutions for life enhancement of all Memphians, and its continued growth will have a major positive impact on successfully improving our lives in the future. Just come to Central Library any morning at 830 AM to see people gathering to enter at 10 AM opening. It happens every day.

In 1958, when I returned to Memphis, after being honorably discharged from the US Air Force, I went to work at Parts Distributors Warehouse, later renamed CARQUEST Distribution Center, and stayed for 53 years.

During those years, I volunteered at the Jewish Community Center, United Way and many other organizations in the Jewish and general community, fundraising , committee and Board responsibilities and leadership roles in some.

In 1993, I volunteered to read on the Memphis Public Library’s FM station for the visually impaired, WYPL, 89.3, and continue to do so to this day. 1533 hours of broadcasts in the first 20 years. I love the books I read and my enjoyment doubles knowing I’m helping someone else enjoy as well.

About 5 years ago, I volunteered to help Friends of the Library’s May book sale, and found out what and how a small handful of Friends’ volunteers continue to have an annual positive influence on our Library’s budget, approximating $400,000 annually! And I knew I had to be a part of it.

Herman in high speed. Photo credit: Memphis Public Library

Herman in high speed. Photo credit: Memphis Public Library

Since then, I have averaged 1,200 or more hours a year, sorting through approximately 325,000 donations and Library discards annually which turn into this amazing amount of money for our Library.  And this is how we do it, with a small number of volunteers, and 3 paid, part time employees.

We cull material we cannot use and send to a local recycler. Last year, we kept 74 tons of mixed paper out of the landfill. Next we choose materials we cannot monetize and give them to government agencies and non profits. We have about 24 active clients, the largest being the Books for Busses program, who make them available to their customers, from bookcases in each of the 3 City bus terminals, FREE. They average giving away about 500 books a month. Hospitals, Church Health Center, local jails, prisons, and many schools and others throughout Shelby County, as well as Little Free Libraries for children all over the City. Our donations totaled over 15,000 pieces last year to these clients.

Then we begin the process of turning the rest into dollars. And all profits go directly to our Library system.

Our huge biannual community book sales are held at Benjamin L Hooks Central Library, 3030 Poplar, where highest price is $3.00. We have 18,000 items or more on display and thousands of customers attend the 2 day events.

The next level is Second Editions, often described as “the best used bookstore in the Mid South.”

It is located in the lobby of Central Library, and has constantly refreshed inventory of about 15,000 pieces, average price a bit over $3. Special sections include  children, teens, non fiction, hard and paper backed fiction, romance novels, advanced readers copies, signed books, Memphis themed books, vintage paperbacks, and collectors editions, and more. 2 part time staff and a number of dedicated volunteers are very attentive to customers seven days a week.

The most valuable books are sold through Amazon, and MEMFOL books, our internet name, and we maintain a 5 star rating for customer satisfaction. Visit our Amazon Store.

Jim in the "Amazon Room"

Jim in the “Amazon Room”. Photo Credit: Memphis Public Library

There are over 13,000 books in inventory, new titles added daily, and is the fastest growing profit center we have. Most sales are shipped in the continental US, but we have shipped internationally as well, with negotiated delivery costs. Sale prices go from $4 sheet music to books and sets over $500. Great operation, with another small crew of volunteers and our other part time employee.

And one more step. Almost half of our financial impact is in cost avoidance for Library collection additions. All Friends inventory is available first to Library staff who constantly check to see if we have received any books that can put into Library inventory, rather than purchase. At an average library acquisition cost of $23 per book, we save the library a huge amount each year.

All this from a group of people who are knowledgeable, hard working and delight in doing the impossible, turning dross into gold. We are Alchemists; and all for our Memphis Public Library System.

We only solicit the general community to join Friends of the Library, $10 a year, all of which goes directly to the Branch of your choice. They spend that money enhancing their customers’ experience, and furnish materials not covered in their budget.

I always loved books and bargain sales. In working with Friends of the Library (FOL), I get to enjoy both of these!  Friends of the Library helps to get donations and turn them into money for the library through our discounted book sales. We also provide lots of books for non-profit organizations that need them.  I’ve always loved doing something enjoyable that can benefit others at the same time. Volunteering at the library lets achieve this.  And I have been so blessed in my life, that I want to do things for others, who may not be as fortunate.

You can see why we are so dedicated, and want you to help. How?

Keep donating your books to the Library, large quantities to Central dock area where Staff will unload your car or truck, at 3030 Poplar. Smaller donations can be taken to your local branch. And attend our twice a year book sales for great bargains and a fun experience. And get amazing values on Second Edition purchases. Join as a Friend. And if any of this really motivates you to want to become one of the best and most productive group I’ve ever seen, call Terrice Thomas, our Volunteer Coordinator, at 415-2840, and she’ll make it happen. We have a variety of times to suit your schedule.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to describe the amazing work of Memphis Friends of the Library. Join with us in any of the ways I’ve listed. And tell someone else about us.

Are you looking for great volunteer opportunities in Memphis?
Check out our Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities.

If you like our work, please DONATE to keep it going!

Want the insider story and more pictures? Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter!


Visions of a Big Mac: Serving the Homeless of Memphis

Visions of a Big Mac
Serving the homeless of Memphis
Guest Blog Post by Jeff Hulett

A little more than a month ago at Neighborhood Church where my family and I are congregants, our pastor, Robert Grisham, challenged the church to think outside the box about giving this Christmas. He asked us to think about what God was calling us to do this holiday season.

Then, he did something a little unexpected.

He called up ten of us from the pews and gave us each an envelope. Inside was a $100 bill. You should’ve heard some of the kids’ (and adults’!) reactions.


Clearly, this money wasn’t meant for me or the others standing in front of the church, although I certainly could have put that cash to good use. My wife Annie and I just welcomed our second baby into our family, and that $100 could have really strengthened our coffee fund!

But before my mental cup was brewed, Robert went on to say that the money was for our Kingdom assignment.

Translation: this money is for us to do something good.

He gave some examples of what people had done in the past and sent us back to our seats. The only rule was to be creative and try to engage friends, family and the community in some way. Making a onetime donation to an organization, while good, was not the point of the assignment.

So what to do with this money? Glad you asked.

I live in the Vollintine Evergreen neighborhood. One day, while heading out of midtown to my folks’ place in Germantown, I saw a homeless person asking for food or money at what seemed like every.single.median. The image of one guy is forever emblazoned in my mind. He held a handmade sign that read, “Visions of a Big Mac.” That simple piece of cardboard made a huge impact on me.

For years, Annie and I have made it a point to always have snack crackers in our cars to give to those in need. We try to tell our older daughter, Ella, that we all can be helpers, no matter how small our gifts may seem. Sometimes she’s the one who hands out the crackers. Even at three years old, I think she understands what giving is all about.

So, again, what was I going to to do for my kingdom assignment?

Then it hit me.

I’m friends with several of the lead volunteers for Room In the Inn Memphis (RITI), so I knew that they were doing some great work with Memphis’ homeless community. I called Lisa Anderson and told her about my kingdom assignment and asked how I could help. She said that Room in the Inn was in need of survival kits for their guests. Kits are plastic sandwich bags filled with some of the little necessities that make a big difference in the quality of life of those living on the street: tube socks, wash cloth, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, garbage bag and some kind of snack.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you what RITI does. In a nutshell, RITI Memphis, modeled after Room in the Inn Nashville, provides dinner and breakfast, a shower, and warm bed for guests one night a week during the coldest winter months (Nov. thru March). Currently, there are nine congregations in Memphis participating. To put it into perspective, RITI Nashville has more than 150 congregations.

Here’s my thought: with a church or faith community on every corner here in Memphis, something is wrong with this picture, don’t you think?

But I digress. Back to my project.

I set a goal to make 500 survival kits for Room in the Inn. Then, I just started talking it up with people. First up, I got my small group involved. We all agreed to go after one or two of the items on our list. Chris took tube socks, Ginger took toothbrushes. Annie and I reached out to our co-workers and families to donate what they could. Not to mention social media. What I’ve realized in all of this is that people want to help. They just need a simple way to do so. We set up an Amazon Wish List for RITI that featured our needed items and included my address.

putting kits togetherEvery day for three weeks I came home from work to find boxes filled all the things we asked for. We also had our kids reaching out to their friends and school mates. Walt, who was also chosen for a kingdom project put his money and efforts towards RITI. He and Meredith were in charge of wash clothes. My dad gave me a $20 spot and other friends chipped in cash as well. It was an overwhelming outpouring of support.

While the goal was to create survival kits, we also wanted to get the word out about this wonderful ministry. And we did! We’ve also decided to make this an annual fundraiser.

My house was filling up with stuff and everyone kept giving.

stuff for the kits

Our deadline to turn in items was December 5 and our packing party to put together kits was December 10, but with my wife’s due date being December 10, we made the item deadline and packing party the same day, December 5.

December 5th, rainy December 5th.

We all met at Josh and Ginger’s house and created the most amazing assembly line ever. We told the kids it was like trick-or-treating too which made it even more fun. Altogether, we made up more than 350 kits, but we also donated a ton more, including first aid kits, blankets, plates, clothes, and shampoo.

Ella helps assemble survival kits

Ella helps assemble survival kits

Late that night, Ella, Chris and I delivered the goods to Lisa at RITI’s new space downtown. Lisa and her husband, Barry, were floored by the generosity of people who participated in this project.

The next day, December 6, my wife gave birth to baby Bea. Really glad we moved that deadline up!

But y’know what else? I’m glad we put that crisp $100 bill to work building better lives for our neighbors. Coffee can wait another day. That $100 did something amazing. It turned into more than $500 and inspired our family and friends to make a difference. How do you put a value on that?

Thanks to all who contributed. I definitely didn’t do it alone.

For more information about Room in the Inn Memphis, visit They do great work and make it easy to get involved!

Do you want to get involved? Here are two easy ways to help:

Check Volunteer Odyssey’s Calendar for upcoming opportunities to volunteer with Room in the Inn.

Purchase something from RITI’s Wish List and ship it to them directly!

How to help at Thanksgiving

How to volunteer in Memphis

Thanksgiving is one of the most popular days of the year to volunteer and many volunteer opportunities for Thanksgiving Day fill up far in advance. So what’s a well-meaning Memphian to do? You can still make a difference!

How to volunteer in MemphisOur local outreach agencies need survival kits (also known as gift bags or blessing bags) for the people they serve throughout the year.

You can collect the materials at assemble these bags at your home while watching videos about those who have been homeless in Memphis.

So what should these bags include? Things like snacks, socks and gloves, toothbrushes and other necessities. Want more ideas?

Get instructions and access to these powerful stories on our founder’s blog.

Memphis needs your help at Thanksgiving and 364 other days of the year. Pick a day that’s special to you and make that a traditional for volunteering. Maybe it’s your birthday, a memorial, or your anniversary! Check out Volunteer Odyssey’s Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities for ideas throughout the rest of the year!

Get started with your Thanksgiving Day Project!

Do you want to help make the world more awesome? So do WE!

At Volunteer Odyssey we believe that everyone can use their special talents to become a volunteer superhero. Whatever your skills or interests, we can help you find a place to make a difference.

Want to get started? Here you go!
1) Explore our programs
2) Check our calendar of volunteer opportunities
3) We want to hear from you! Email

Like our work? Keep it going!

Support Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis. Donate to Volunteer Odyssey



How to improve Volunteer Odyssey? Kid President!!!

In case you’re wondering, Kid President doesn’t wear a suit on the moon bounce.

When our blogger Crista Dupree starting her Volunteer Odyssey experience, she met one of our favorite people – Kid President!

Crista just started her 7-day adventure with us and was volunteering at the Memphis Grizzlies Moon Bounce as part of Rock for Love at the Church Health Center. So many of our favorite things in one place.

While volunteering, Crista was lucky enough to be photobombed by Kid President! That’s the best kind of photobomb we can think of!

Because as Kid President would say, Make the World More Awesome! And then hop on the moon bounce!



Do you want to help make the world more awesome? So do WE!

At Volunteer Odyssey we believe that everyone can use their special talents to become a volunteer superhero. Whatever your skills or interests, we can help you find a place to make a difference.

Want to get started? Here you go!
1) Explore our programs
2) Check our calendar of volunteer opportunities
3) We want to hear from you! Email

Like our work? Keep it going!

Support Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis. Donate to Volunteer Odyssey

Volunteer Odyssey Launches Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis

Our team at Volunteer Odyssey is excited to announce the launch of our Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis.

Our goal is to turn potential volunteers into dedicated volunteers and to share their stories! Most people want to volunteer and contribute to Memphis, but many don’t know where to start. Our calendar is the perfect starting point.

We have something for everyone and every schedule. There are daytime volunteer opportunities plus evening and weekend opportunities. There are experiences for kids, adults, groups, and individuals. We opportunities to help the homeless, to work in gardens, and to use your unique skills to benefit non-profits all across Memphis.

Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis. Left to right: Lauren Squires at Project Outreach, Ariana Glantz at the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County, Brendan Larkin at Gaia Community Garden

Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis. Left to right: Lauren Squires at Project Outreach, Ariana Glantz at the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County, Brendan Larkin at Gaia Community Garden

If you’re ready to get started, visit our Calendar of Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis.

Calendar of volunteer opportunities memphis

If you need more information or have a specific request, let us know!

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Support Volunteer Opportunities in Memphis. Donate to Volunteer Odyssey

Day Five: Ave Maria Home

If you are in need of a great time, look no further than the Ave Maria Home. When I walked in the door, there was a parade of seniors being led by a gentleman celebrating his birthday in a crown. “I am the king today!” he proclaimed as walked around the corner to the Social Services office.

I was met by Sam, a social worker at the house and a Volunteer Odyssey alum. Sam reaffirmed my feelings about the entire Volunteer Odyssey process: you will meet the right connection if you are putting yourself out there during the week of volunteering. When she found herself at a crossroads, this was the networking boost she needed.

Sam gave me a tour of the facilities while we discussed her line of work, her experience with Volunteer Odyssey, and how she found herself in this job shortly after. We stopped and talked to different residents as we walked through, all eager to show off their living quarters. This was aging with pride. Sam explained they can be as independent or dependent as they wanted (or needed). There were people who lived in apartment style rooms, and those who lived in a more traditional nursing home setting. No single person being treated the same. The care I saw from the nurses and staff was all individualized, not to mention, everyone knew each resident’s name. When family visits become few and far between, these familiar faces become the resident’s family. The staff takes that to heart.

Lunch is served!

Lunch is served!

My tasks for the day were simple, yet meaningful. First I had the chance to visit with a resident as the rest of the house returned from the parlor. A beautician came in to the house today and the ladies were lined up. It was a nice to see some pampering for the residents limited to the facility.

The first resident I visited with was a well-traveled woman who had a story for every single photograph in her room. She looked longingly at the photo of her husband and told me about his time in the Air Force. When possible, he would bring her to the places he was flying, and she reflected on the time they spent seeing the world together.

After lunch of a “spot on” grilled cheese provided by the amazing staff, I sat down to do manicures for two women who may as well have been on vacation. They talked about going to the salon in the morning and making jewelry in their room. One went out to lunch with her daughter earlier in the week, and they shared their excitement to hear the live music from the block party happening at the neighboring church. As I painted their nails, they told me about the roads that led them to where they are today. Every single resident in that story has decades of timeless experience to share with those who make the time to listen.

Time for manicures.

Time for manicures.

If you want to hear a great story, visit the generation who have lived it all. Stories of flying around the world or playing sports as a professional athlete abound. One resident told me how she came home from winter break at secretarial school and told her dad she was never going back. Instead, she enrolled in a business course and had an opportunity to take a job typically held by a man when people were drafted for war. She spent her entire career at that same company and retired as a department head..

My time spent at the Ave Maria Home today gave new meaning to the phrase, “Respect your elders.” I should be so lucky as to have such rich life experiences to share with the younger generation when I’m their age.


Thank you for reading! Like what you read? Megan Banaszek is searching for a job in the non-profit sector where she can use her Family Services degree and public service experience to make a positive impact in Memphis. …. Contact her at or


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Day Four: LeBonheur Children’s Hospital

To anyone who has ever had the treat of volunteering at the LeBonheur Children’s Hospital beverage cart: can we all agree that Gordon is the greatest? I found myself getting emotional this evening preparing to write this blog, reflecting on my day working with Gordon, the staff and families.

When I hopped off the elevator at LeBonheur Hospital, I was greeted by Volunteer Coordinator Timorie. She generously contacted me bright and early this morning in the midst of the monsoon that took place in Memphis today, to give me an insider tip about a parking ramp that would keep me from taking a single step in the elements on my way to her office. As a first time volunteer, and a former Volunteer Coordinator, I greatly appreciated her going the extra mile.

I was introduced to Gordon, a regular volunteer at the hospital, and we hit the ground running. Gordon explained to me his routes as he serves coffee faithfully Tuesdays and Thursdays at the hospital. The beverage cart, decked out with all the bells and whistles, has been Gordon’s project over the last year. The cart is equipped with all the fixings for coffee, tea, hot chocolate and the “LeBonheur Special” (a hot chocolate and coffee combo). In addition to the complimentary beverages to families staying in the children’s hospital, the beverage cart delivers smiles. While I know this is corny, it is no less true. I can’t tell you how many people were waiting for the beverage cart, or chasing us down through the rounds for a LeBonheur Special.

The beverage cart making rounds every Tuesday and Thursday morning

The beverage cart making rounds every Tuesday and Thursday morning.

In three hours we covered six floors of the hospital. Each floor was designated to a different type of treatment. While the appearance of children changed floor to floor, every family had the common bond of being there for a child they love and desperately wanted to be healthy again.

My interest in volunteering in this setting hits close to home. Throughout college, I spent endless hours at medical appointments, waiting entire days in the hospital for the doctor to give me a three minute update, and spending the night on hospital couches. It does not take moving mountains to brighten your day in this environment. A smile can make your day…a smile AND a cup of coffee? WEEK MADE! Every cup prepared at the cart is done with love.

Hard working RN Evan gets a Le Bonheur Special boost.

Hard working staff get a Le Bonheur Special boost.

While the beverage cart is not delivering lifesaving medicine at LeBonheur, it certainly boosts morale where it counts. Whether it’s a staff member with wet shoes from their 5am commute in the rain looking for a morning boost, a parent on empty looking to try the infamous “special” in the midst of their endless coffee runs, or a child who lights up asking their parent if they can pretty please have a hot cocoa: Volunteer Services provides an invaluable asset to LeBonheur Children’s Hospital.

Thank you for reading! Like what you read? Megan Banaszek is searching for a job in the non-profit sector where she can use her Family Services degree and public service experience to make a positive impact in Memphis. …. Contact her at or


If you like our work, please DONATE to keep it going!

Want the insider story and more pictures? Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter!



Prologue: Brendan Larkin

Growing up charity and volunteering were always synonymous with church service and resume builders in my mind. It was not until I met a young women who had overcome many disadvantages only to decide to give back to low income communities instead of pursuing a more typical American dream that I realized not only how many advantages I had, but how easy and fulfilling giving back to a community could be. Memphis is such a unique city with so much pride that volunteering here will be an immediate way to become embedded in the community while helping foster it.

I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to do just that, not at one organization, but at seven different non-profits all in the span of one week. While there are many more great non-profit organizations with volunteer opportunities, I believe that these seven will give me a great spectrum of knowledge on volunteer opportunities in Memphis. I will get the rare chance to be able to see what issue needs the most attention and what group, cause or community I am really am passionate about. I know that this adventure will drastically alter my knowledge and understanding of the city and the community in a positive way.

I am excited to build and refine my skills in many new, exciting situations. While I know the demands of this week will be challenging, I look forward to coming out as not only a more informed individual, but more well rounded person that can bring a lot to the table at any organization. My hope is that the main achievement of this week is a renewed sprit of empathy and erosion of past ignorance for me and anyone that follow experience.

Intern Odyssey: How Blue Pompoms and Feathers Changed My Life


Never before have I purchased something as useful from a religious institution as the blue pompom-and-feathered fly swatter I purchased from Catholic Charities of West Tennessee.

Myself and my new blue pompom best friend

Myself and my new blue pompom best friend

Let’s backtrack. This was my third day in Memphis and I woke up bright and early, ready to seize the day. Being one of the few car-less Memphians, and the only non-tourist in all of the state to take the trolley as an actual means of transportation, I called up ‘Lyft’- a community initiative in which individual members looking to make an extra buck pick you up and take you where you need to go. It is also a great way to meet interesting Memphians who are involved in community and, more often than not, they know more about the place you are going to than you do. That was the case for me as my Lyft driver described in detail all the incredible services that Catholic Charities of West Tennessee offers. His vivid explanations made me even more excited for the day to unfold.

Lyft cars are marked by pink fluffy mustaches so that customers can easily identify them

Lyft cars are marked by pink fluffy mustaches so that customers can easily identify them

After saying goodbye to my new Lyft friend, I arrived at CCWTN and met up with Kat, an awesome Volunteer Odyssey participant who recently returned to the U.S. after 3 months living in Peru with Catholic nuns. Needless to say, an awesome person to volunteer with. We immediately hit it off and were ready to rumble. We met up with Al and Ronny, two longtime Fig Tree volunteers who know the ins and outs of, well, everything Fig Tree related. Together we drove to the Mid South Food Bank-a  non-profit that works to fight hunger through the collection and distribution of wholesome food, and through education and advocacy.

Kat and I meet and form an immediate friendship

Kat and I meet and form an immediate friendship

After listening intently to Al’s description about the Food Bank’s distribution methods and partner agencies, we later transitioned into a game of “Who-can-find-the-weirdest-food-here?” Kat ended up bringing home the gold with a tin of powdered goats milk. Delicious.

Kat's winning item: Powdered Goat Milk

Kat’s winning item: Powdered Goat Milk

Then, after loading the truck with an array of foods ranging from canned vegetables to starches to soy proteins, we headed back to CCWTN. Back at the pantry, we were introduced to Gloria, the food pantry’s only employee. (It was hard to fathom that such an incredible organization that did so much in the community only had one employee. Goes to show the power of volunteers!) Together we created small bags of food that would be handed out daily to individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as bags of food for families in need.

The bag packing crew!

The bag packing crew!

What made the bag assembling experience so memorable was having the chance to hear Gloria’s life story. As a cancer survivor, Gloria’s journey and struggle to stay positive in the face of adversity, and how she turned to her church and faith in order to help her through it, was truly uplifting and inspirational. It never ceases to amaze me how faith and service can serve as such a light in times of darkness. Hearing Gloria explain the importance of attitude, staying positive, and doing good for the community, and the effect that it can have on an individual in terms of not only the spiritual and emotional, but also physical health, was incredibly moving, and a message that I took to heart and will remember as I move forward in life.

Myself, Kat, and Gloria!

Myself, Kat, and Gloria!

At the end of the day, Al and Peggy Stehling, the Fig Pantry’s volunteer coordinator, gave us a tour of the building and showed us some of the other services that CCWTN provides to the community, including an awesome clothes pantry, services for veterans, immigration services, and more! She also spoke about the different ‘day of service’ opportunities that CCWTN hosts. During its last ‘day of service,’ the CCWTN had hosted a community craft project that involved ‘beautifying’ fly swatters with pompoms and ribbons, and selling them as a fundraiser for CCWTN. Of the hundreds that were created, fewer than 15 remained, so I quickly pounced on my opportunity to purchase one! Let me tell you, not being a native ‘Southerner’ made getting used to the sheer size and persistence of the bugs in Memphis one of my biggest challenges. Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to buy something I needed so badly, while also contributing to an awesome cause. Now every time I look at my fly swatter, I am reminded of my volunteer experience with CCWTN.

More of the bag packing crew

More of the bag packing crew

We were also extremely fortunate to have been volunteering on a day full of celebration. As it turned out it was Gloria’s birthday and another Fig Tree pantry volunteer, Melinda, had also recently had a birthday, so the whole staff was ready to celebrate with cake, balloons, and joy. My favorite part of the celebration was a tradition that the Fig Tree staff members and volunteers have of writing and reciting a personalized poem about the birthday boy or girl. From listening to the poem and seeing how the staff members acted towards one another, it was clear that the CCWTN community was a family.

Celebrating birthday festivities!

Celebrating birthday festivities!

It was then that I understood what I loved so much about Fig Tree Pantry. It was the way that the people worked together. In my opinion, the way a staff operates and functions completely shapes the experience both for volunteers and clients. The organizational culture is core when fulfilling a non-profit’s mission, and as a volunteer, you can certainly feel the difference when a non-profit’s staff respect each other and function as a team, compared to when it functions as separate units. The end result of the team/family mentality? A better functioning and more efficient organization, as is evident by the incredible and wide reaching work of CCWTN. I will never forget the respect, love, devotion, and passion of all the volunteers and staff members at Fig Tree and I am excited to be reunited with them in the near future at their next volunteer opportunity!

Thank you for reading! Like what you read? Mira Biller is the intern at Volunteer Odyssey and is passionate about a variety of social justice issues. She especially loves connecting people with organizations that will be mutually beneficial and helping to create a better and more connected community. Contact us at

If you like our work, please DONATE to keep it going!
Want the insider story and more pictures? Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter!

Donating Isn’t Rocket Science

Note from Volunteer Odyssey:

We’ll be incorporating guest posts about Memphis area nonprofits that are doing great work in the community.

We present Part 2 of a series about food banks from local journalist, Rachel Wilhite:

8224283841_1efe1bacd3Bob Fritchey is a busy man.  His phone is ringing off the hook, having received at least five calls in the last fifteen minutes.  He’s working on a deal to buy 1,500 turkeys for a dollar per pound and he wants them in the warehouse, ready to ship today.  As the Food Resource Coordinator, Fritchey will be the first to tell you that the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis, Tennessee, doesn’t like to go around with its hat in hand; it prefers to build relationships with donors.

But Fritchey hasn’t always been so busy.  Before the passage of the Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, companies were afraid to donate to food banks because of liability concerns.  Almost a decade ago, a Wal-Mart in Dyersburg, Tennessee had a situation in which their refrigeration system lost power briefly overnight.  Consequently, all of the frozen and refrigerated food was pulled from store regardless if it had thawed or not.  It was then shrink-wrapped and placed into a nondescript box to be shipped to an out-of-state landfill because store managers were worried that news of the incident would get out. They thought that if they shipped the food to a local landfill, someone would go through it and get sick in the process.  This was a normal response to manage a store’s inventory quality back then.  The majority of this food was unharmed and could have been donated to a food bank in need; instead, it was thrown out.

8225340042_2a4cf7f0ccFortunately, this is no longer the case.  “The truth is,” Fritchey stated, “as long as a company is willing to donate food products to a legitimate non-profit and they’re doing it with the intent that the product is still good along with the desire to feed people, there is almost zero liability associated with it thanks to the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.”  The act encourages food donations by shielding both donor and recipient agencies from liability issues except in extreme cases.  Since its passage, the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act has opened the Mid-South Food Bank’s doors to a lot of major companies such as Sara Lee, Hillshire Farms, Family Dollar, Riviana Foods, Kroger and Wal-Mart.

Even still, the food bank and its associate pantries are often at the mercy of unpredictable donations and overstocked inventory.  Occasionally Fritchey gets a call to pick up pallets of food from a truck driver stuck at a weigh station who is overweight and in a hurry to get back on the road. “I don’t deal with donations received by the bag.  I go after the truckloads,” Fritchey said. Many truck stop managers have established relationships with their local pantry operators, directing their drivers to deliver their rejected merchandise to their doorsteps, no matter what time of night it is.

8224268657_d43c076fd6Businesses competing with one another in order to have a strong public perception of quality will begin pulling produce from their shelves long before its expiration date because it is no longer aesthetically pleasing to the customer.  “We get a lot of stuff from the distribution center in New Albany, Mississippi.  Gary [Hall] will call me with stuff they need to get rid of,” Fritchey said.  “It could be anything.”

Gary Hall has worked at multiple Wal-Mart Distribution Centers for 26 years, 13 of which have been spent in the New Albany facility.  As a Quality Assurance Manager, it is his job to ensure that all products are up to standard regardless of their final destination.  The New Albany outfit stocks 126 dry goods stores as well as 103 perishable goods stores.  It is also currently home to about 200,000 turkeys waiting to be sold throughout the holiday season.  Hall has donated ten turkeys to the Mid-South Food Bank so far, but with this kind of stock, more are bound to follow.

Hall began donating to the food bank five years ago, due in part to its commitment to serving the region to which his store belongs.  New Albany’s local food pantry, the Good Samaritan Center, is supported by the Mid-South Food Bank and also accepts aid from the community—including outsiders who are just passing through.  Many donations are obtained from truck drivers whose loads are rejected.  Recently, the Good Samaritan Center received several cases of onions that had fallen off a pallet.  The onions were not accepted by the grocer for fear that they would be bruised and unsellable.  Left with merchandise to unload, the driver contacted the pantry, where he knew the produce would be accepted without question.  Donations like this are described as “happy accidents,” and thanks to the federal Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, along with the relationships made throughout the supply chain, this food is no longer going to waste.

Hall says his drivers contribute differently.  “Our donations our generally consumer-controlled, not accidental.  All our buyers have to go off of is how much we sold last year.  If there winds up being overstock, it gets donated.”  Items that are store brand, such as Great Value or Sam’s Choice, are a separate story.  Wal-Mart does not allow these items to be donated.  Hall says that the company’s reasoning is that the donation of these goods could have direct, undue influence over individuals.  “We don’t want that kind of exposure,” he said.  “A can of Del Monte tomatoes could have come from anywhere.  A can of Great Value tomatoes can obviously be linked back to us.”

Regardless of how goods find their way to the Mid-South Food Bank, we can be assured that they are benefiting someone in need.  The Mid-South Food Bank distributes about a million pounds of food per month to their associate pantries in eighteen counties in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas.  The local food industry—from warehousing to retail—proves to be a valuable resource for the bank, providing exactly 31 percent of the bank’s annual inventory.  This is one of the crucial sources of donations that Fritchey attempts to secure access to.  “Every year there is over 100 billion pounds of food wasted in this country.  That’s enough to feed every single man, woman and child an extra 1,500 pounds (of food) a year and it’s just wasted.  It’s wasted for cosmetic reasons, people cooking too much…from the field to the table, there are all these places where food is wasted.  If we can recoup some of that and give it to those in need, it’s the right thing to do.  It’s not rocket science; it’s what we should be doing.”  By working to build relationships with food distribution centers, retailers and others in the food transportation industry, Fritchey is helping ensure that’s exactly what happens.

See more of Rachel’s pictures from the Mid-South Food Bank:

By Rachel Wilhite

Twitter: @rachwilhite