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 1 of a series about food banks from local journalist, Rachel Wilhite:
The Good Samaritan Center in New Albany, Mississippi, is doing more than just providing relief to hungry families. It’s bringing the community together. No matter your age or ability, there is something you can do to help. “It is about so much more than the food,” pantry director Sally Zemek stated. “We are building relationships.”
The phrase “many hands make light work” seems to be an apt motto for the pantry, with volunteers of all ages filing in and out their doors each day they are open. They distribute roughly 13,000 pounds of food each month. That’s around 1,625 gallons of milk or 13,000 cans of soup. The Mid-South Food Bank provides exactly 4,000 pounds of this food. The remaining 9,000 pounds is obtained through the Mississippi Food Network and local donations.
Zemek plans a three-day menu with the items she receives and includes recipes. The pantry operates as an emergency resource for meal assistance, providing its clients with three days’ worth of food depending on the size of the family. The clients are prescreened to ensure eligibility and are only able to receive aid once a month. “Only a small percent come every month,” said Zemek. “I don’t feel like a lot of people lean on this. It’s not glamorous. They’re receiving canned goods, not steak and lobster.”
Zemek’s work is hard but is made easier by the wide array of volunteers who join her at the pantry regularly. Many clients find Wanda Roberts, the pantry’s office manager, to be very relatable. When Roberts suddenly lost her husband and job three years ago, she also turned to the Good Samaritan Center for help. Roberts isn’t shy about sharing her story with others. “The pantry gave me hope,” she said. “I got a hug the first time I came. They made me feel good that day and they didn’t have to. I want to give that encouragement to someone else now.”
Roberts isn’t the only one who returns to the pantry after having been a client. “At least once or twice a year,” Roberts said, “someone comes back and gives something. It may not be more than twenty dollars or thirty minutes but you remember their face. It touches you.”
Heather Ferrell, a teacher at New Albany High School, has been bringing her Occupational Diploma program students to volunteer multiple times a week for almost a year. The Mississippi Occupational Diploma (MOD) is a graduation option that is available to special education students with mild to moderate learning disabilities. Her students are able to use this experience to meet graduation requirements outlined by the program.
When Ferrell first told her class they would be partnering with the pantry, they were excited to help the older volunteers. Trent Jones, a student in Ferrell’s class, said, “We can do things a lot easier than they can.” Before the arrival of the MOD students, Wanda Roberts, described herself as “one of the younger volunteers” at 61. “We probably get more out of it than they do,” said Roberts.
Ferrell’s students beg to differ. The class collectively agrees that they like giving back to the community. “It’s a perfect situation in which both parties benefit,” Ferrell said. “My students are meeting their graduation requirements while doing good for others.” From clerical work to cleaning, the students do a little bit of everything while at the pantry. “They learn many valuable skills that will help them find employment later,” said Ferrell. “They keep the books, take inventory, unload shipments and stock the shelves. But most importantly, they learn how to work cooperatively with other people,” she added.
Matthew Stacy, a Mississippi Occupational Diploma graduate and a former student of Ferrell, says his favorite task is retrieving the cake mix and icing for clients who have upcoming birthdays. Stacy and his grandmother, Kay Browning, have been volunteering at the pantry twice a week for two months now. They’ve become the permanent “welcome wagon,” greeting clients as they enter the building and loading their groceries into their cars as they leave.
Ferrell’s students’ involvement with the Good Samaritan Center doesn’t stop at volunteering. They also connect the high school community at large with the pantry by organizing school-wide food drives. They request that students in each grade collect specific items that the pantry is always in need of, including peanut butter, jelly, grains, cooking oil, tea and coffee. “We are grateful these students have decided to do this for us,” Roberts said. “Sometimes our inventory is so limited. There will only be three or four items to give out. This class has been a tremendous help in so many ways.”
Volunteers are crucial to the daily operation of the Good Samaritan Center. With only three part time employees, volunteers are what keep the pantry’s doors open. Zemek said “some volunteers come weekly, others once a month. They get as much out of it as the people receiving the food.” The pantry’s purpose is to support families in need, but it runs on the support of the family it brought together.
By Rachel Wilhite