PHELPS — For almost 20 years, Don and Virginia Walters have been dedicated to putting food on the tables of those who otherwise might not have any.
After 18 years as coordinators of the St. Francis Community Food Cupboard in Phelps, the pair are ready to hand over the reins to fellow St. Francis parishioners Beverly and Tom Cheney.
“We kind of felt that it might be the time that we passed it along,” Don said.
“After 20 years, that’s a long time to be at the helm of any volunteer position,” Virginia added.
Twenty years ago, Virginia was elected to the St. Francis parish pastoral council and became the human development chairperson. At that time, she canvassed the community and determined that there was a need for more services for the elderly population. Based on that information, she and her husband helped start Young at Heart, bringing in senior citizens to the parish once a month for dinner, bingo, prizes and social time.
After two years, however, the Young at Heart program was dissolved and the St. Francis Community Food Cupboard was formed in its place. On the fourth Tuesday of the month, the food cupboard distributes a 10-day supply of food to the needy in Phelps. By that time, Virginia estimates, many families who receive food stamps or other forms of aid will be running low on food for the month.
On June 22, 10 volunteers scurried around the St. Francis church hall — where the food cupboard is located — sorting bags and boxes of food that had been donated by a recent post office food drive. Local schools and community organizations, including Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, also hold annual drives for the food cupboard, and many area businesses and factories also contribute money and goods, Virginia said.
“People just think it’s great that we’re doing this, and they’re willing to help,” she said. “They’re wonderful to us; everyone is. They love this food cupboard. You have to know that the hand of the Lord is definitely in this ministry.”
Once a month, volunteers sort all the donated food into categories, including canned corn, rice products, tuna, meat products, soup, spaghetti sauce, peanut butter and jelly. There is also a box for miscellaneous items, such as pickles and barbecue sauce. Once a particular box is full, it is put aside so its contents can be counted and logged in before the box is placed on the shelves of the food cupboard.
Once food has been logged in as part of the food cupboard’s inventory, it can be used to fill the boxes of food that are distributed each month to needy families. Each box contains such basic items as peanut butter and jelly, soup, instant mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese.
Although a lot of food is donated to the cupboard through drives and individuals, Don and Virginia still need to visit the grocery store each month to purchase any basic items that the food cupboard doesn’t have in stock. As coordinators of the food cupboard, they also receive calls when families need emergency food.
“Two or three times a week I get calls for people who need food. I never refuse anyone,” Don said.
Between the emergency calls, shopping and picking up donations, as well as coordinating the monthly sorting and distribution days, Don and Virginia devote a good portion of their time to running the food cupboard.
Although running the food cupboard involves more time than most people think, both Don and Virginia readily acknowledge that their work hasn’t been without its reward.
“It’s very rewarding. Just knowing you’re helping, of course, and then the great (looks) on the faces of the people; that’s your pay. That’s your reward, to know that you’re really making a difference,” Virginia said. “One lady used to say we were her angels from heaven. We treat them all with kindness, and we do fall in love with them.”
Don agreed that “the good feeling of knowing the ones that need help are getting help” is what has motivated him to keep up his work for the food cupboard all these years.
The Cheneys recently moved to Phelps from Virginia and said they are looking forward to coordinating the food cupboard. They were involved in social justice at their former parish and are glad to have found a way to continue that work. Their 4-year-old grandson, Mathias, was also very enthusiastic about helping at the food cupboard, as he and his stuffed tiger spent the morning running canned goods to the appropriate boxes.
Don and Virginia pledged to help the Cheneys until they get the hang of things, and even after that, the Walters won’t be sitting idly around the house.
“We’ll never have extra time; we’ll just go on to something else,” Virginia said. “We’ve been volunteering too long. It’s a part of us. I’m sure there’s something out there waiting for us.”