During March and April, I visited a close friend who spent nearly two months in the rehab unit at Heritage Harbor. Nearly every visit included meeting other interesting people who were also visiting my popular friend.
During one visit, I met retired Verizon manager Rhonda Jackson. After she arrived, I devoted most of my time just listening as this remarkable African-American woman – past the age of retirement but hardly retired – tell stories about all the amazing things going on in our community to assist people in need or families in crisis.
As I departed, I thought of that old saw, “Hidden in plain sight.” There is so much going on around us that we don’t even notice. Indeed, a lot is happening out there and much of it reflects our culture of volunteerism and especially the volunteer activities of those in their bonus years.
Most of the time we think of volunteers as younger people helping older folks. But as I listened to Jackson talk about Severna Park’s Asbury Church Assistance Network I learned about a place where many older folks volunteer to assist younger individuals and families in need. In fact, most ACAN volunteers are age 60 or more – with ages ranging from 29 to 82.
ACAN was founded in 2004 by Asbury’s Methodist pastor Ronald Ward (now retired) and Air Force veteran Clinton Wallace (also retired). Their vision: To enhance the quality of life for persons in emergency or crisis situations – and to do that from a small building (about 600 s.f.) located behind the Asbury Church in Severna Park.
ACAN’s approach is to provide food items, community social and educational events, and limited monetary assistance – for example, with utility turn-off notices or eviction payments – to individuals or families in need. Financial resources are provided by the Asbury Church congregation and grants in the $2,000-$2,500 range from local foundations, such as Walmart and the Annapolis Community Foundation.
ACAN provides food to more than 1,000 individuals each week. The day I visited the ACAN pantry, three new families had just arrived for assistance, and 26 volunteers were unpacking food they had picked up from suppliers, placing it on the shelves to be shopped by ACAN clients.
In addition to an annual food and clothing drive in partnership with Severna Park’s Good Neighbor Group, ACAN’s week-to-week food is supplied by donations from the Maryland and Anne Arundel County food banks and area farms, restaurants (e.g., Bob Evans) and grocery stores – such as Diehl’s Produce, Giant in Bay Ridge, Green Valley in Arnold, Severna Park’s Food Lion and B.J. Wholesale in Glen Burnie. They even receive food from Severna Park’s Boy Scout Troop 994.
Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods are key ACAN suppliers, reflecting a priority of executive director, Janet Pack, also a bonus year volunteer. Pack says, “I have a passion to maintain a food pantry with healthy food and with choices for our clients. Just because you are down on your luck doesn’t mean you should have to take a box of food prepared by others. Too often these prepared ‘Care Packages’ include food high in sodium and carbohydrates with too few vegetables and fresh foods. That’s one reason why there is so much obesity and kidney and heart disease among low income people.”
Pack continued, “The way I see it, our mission is not only to supply food but to help those we assist to acquire a taste for healthy food – food high in nutrition, including fresh food prepared at home. That’s why we also provide cooking lessons and shopping tips – to introduce our clients to healthy eating habits. That’s why our approach is to let our clients make choices as they shop for food in our grocery store-style pantry.”
Pack added, “In fact, our larger purpose is about instilling hope and dignity. That’s why providing choices and encouraging a healthy lifestyle are so important. That’s also why we secured a supply of discarded luggage so that our clients won’t have to transport their food in plastic lawn bags.
“And don’t forget,” she said, “it’s not only about food. When you are in a bad situation, you have many needs. You need soap for bathing – and toothpaste or a comb. If you are woman, you may need sanitary napkins. If you have small children, you need wipes and Pampers. If you are elderly, you may need Depends. If you are interviewing for a job you may need a shirt or shoes. We do everything we can to serve the whole person’s personal, material and spiritual needs – not just the nutritional.”
As I was preparing to leave, a call came in from another food pantry – this one from Empowering Believers Church of the Apostolic Faith in Glen Burnie. The Believers Church, which distributes food on the fourth Tuesday of each month, was running out and wanted to know if ACAN had food it could share.
The answer was yes, so Linwood Jackson, husband of Rhonda and a retired environmental technician, enlisted volunteer “lifters” to fill ACAN’s Ford utility van with food. I accompanied Jackson to Glen Burnie where I witnessed another dedicated group of (mostly) later-life volunteers – including 91-year-old Ruth Marlow, 81-year-old Evelyn Jones and 60-year-old Tyrone Gibbs – helping others with food and clothing needs.
Belinda Thomas, wife of pastor Larry Lee Thomas (who also chairs the county’s United Black Clergy), oversees the church-supported food pantry. I had to pick up my step to keep up with her as we walked and talked.
“We all help each other,” she said. “Sometimes we have extra food. Sometimes we need food. But we all work together to get the job done.”
It’s amazing to learn that there are not only food pantries all over Anne Arundel and adjacent counties, but that these voluntary, grass-roots associations are networked and routinely assist each other by sharing food and other resources.
It’s sobering to see first-hand how many individuals and families need help – some just for a few days or a week; others for longer periods.
It’s also wonderful to learn that so many grocery stores and other private sector enterprises regularly supply food, free of charge and without fanfare, giving community pantries and shelters the ability to serve the nutritional requirements of those in need.
All this loving activity, hidden in plain sight.
The ACAN volunteers are an inspiring bunch with a noble mission that they carry out with joy and passion. They have outgrown their “headquarters” building, and their van – essential for picking up and distributing food – is on its last legs and needs to be replaced. Still, they march onward and upward, looking after their neighbors and repairing the world, as they live out the calling of their faith. To know them is to be humbled.