A Friday at the Food Pantry at Jefferson County Community Ministries

There’s a sign on the on the wall in the Food Pantry at Community Ministries. In bold, colored capital letters it says, “I Can Change the World!” That change happens one person at a time.

Hope (not her real name) is a student at Shepherd College, about to go home to Mineral County for the weekend. She has come in to the Food Pantry to get some food to take home with her, because her parents, both prison guards at the federal prison there, have advised her that she will have nothing to eat while she is there. Donna Joy, a teacher in Jefferson County, has advised her to come to the Food Pantry to get some food to take with her. “I had to do a “GoFundMe” page to get enough money for my parents to come here to pick me up, and keep on going to work next week,” she said. “They haven’t been paid at all this month, and last month was Christmas. There’s just no money right now.”

“Maybe they should do what that guy [Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross] says, and just get a loan to buy food,” says another client waiting for his turn to get food, more than a little sarcastically. Hope smiles faintly, and then turns to embrace a tall, attractive woman who has just come in. “This is my mother,” she says proudly. “I’m going to go home and paint bottles with her this weekend to help earn extra money.” She explains that a reporter is working on stories about Jefferson County Community Ministries, and makes the introductions. The mother also would prefer that her name not be used, but she is willing to talk about her situation.”

“One thing I hope you understand is that this not ‘normal’ for us. Usually we are the ones trying to help out, through our church,” says Mom. “Our pastor is also a guard at the prison. My husband and I have been working there 18 years, and we have never been in a fix like this before. We haven’t been paid since Dec. 22 [the interview was taking place Jan. 25] and we are considered essential employees, so we can’t just stay home. All the guards have been showing up, but it is a very tense situation for all of us. This is work with felons, not an office job. I have a co-worker whose prison income is the whole income for his family of six—his wife stays home to home-school the four kids. He says he doesn’t know how he is going to pay to get to work next week.”

One of the pantry volunteers comes out with a grocery cart filled to the top with food. “Do you need food for your pets, too?” she asks. When the mother nods, pet food and kitty litter are added to the rack beneath the cart. “We are going to share this with our pastor,” the mother says. “His daughter is visiting this weekend, and he was saying he was going to walk to Dollar General to buy some food, because he has to save the gas in the car to get to the prison.” Before they leave, the mother and daughter profusely thank the volunteers, and even the other clients waiting for food who have given them good wishes. They also hug everyone before they leave.

The Food Pantry volunteers have noticed the impact of the government shutdown on the larger community. “There are more new faces than we usually have,” says volunteer Barb Green. “They don’t want to say why they are here, but you can tell. We get at least a couple each day. They are not regulars.” Karen, another volunteer, adds, “I work Thursdays and Fridays. I’d say we average six to ten people in a morning [the Food Pantry is open from 9 a.m. until noon] but recently our numbers have gone up.”

Mindy is a regular. She would rather I don’t use her real name. Her clear voice, good grammar, and careful explanations of her situation indicate someone surprised to find herself getting food at Jefferson County Community Ministries, yet she has been struggling—and receiving food here–for nearly a year. She has gone from long-term, stable employment to seeking public and church assistance. “I have made some mistakes,” she said. “I would prefer you don’t say what they are. However, I can tell you that the people here at the Food Pantry don’t make you feel guilty. They just help you to get the food you need. I have never met such wonderful, caring people.”

Currently, Mindy is homeless, and has been using the Cold Weather Homeless Shelter that Jefferson County Community Ministries sponsors.  “However, I had flu, and I was really sick. I was given a motel voucher for two nights, and I was able to get some rest, take my medicine regularly, and just relax a bit. It helped a lot. I am trying to get back on my feet, and JCCM has really helped.”

Donna Joy, the teacher who encouraged Hope to come to Jefferson County Community Ministries, has seen the effect that the organization has on people in need. She is an experienced volunteer, and also does recovery coaching for victims of addiction. “There are so many ways this organization helps people in need,” she says. “I knew to tell Hope to come here because I have seen the impact these volunteers have on the lives of the people they serve.

Barb Green has been working in the Food Pantry for nine years, and works two days a week, “…plus many hours of unofficial time,” she says. She is impressed with the fact that some of the volunteers are also people who receive services from JCCM, and thinks it helps them to eventually become more effective employees. “The work is a way of becoming acclimated to the world of work, of learning responsibility, of recognizing that one needs to become accountable for one’s time and actions.” She loves her co-workers and says, “They are the kindest people in the world.”

By Georgia C. DuBose