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HUNGER ACTION: Extending the loaves and fishes

HUNGER ACTION: Extending the loaves and fishes

“I was hungry and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me a drink; I was homeless and you gave me a room; I was shivering and you gave me clothes; I was sick and you stopped to visit; I was in prison and you came to me. … Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” -- Matthew 25: 35-36, 40, from “The Message”

Line-up for food pantry
People from Wildwood and surrounding communities line up for one of the twice-monthly distributions at the Wildwood UMC food pantry.

WILDWOOD – At least twice a month, Don and Marlene Huggins leave a land of tee times and Bunco brunch and drive about 12 miles southwest, to a place where people from different walks of life find themselves on the same bumpy road.

Don and Marlene belong to New Covenant UMC in a bustling retirement community called The Villages. Every two weeks, they set out for Wildwood, the small-town hub of a largely rural area where, for many, recreational pursuits take a backseat to paying the rent and finding the next meal.

On the first and third Fridays, the couple and other volunteers from New Covenant help staff a food pantry at Wildwood UMC that offers sustenance to about 200 families a month.

Around the block is a soup kitchen operated six days a week by the First Presbyterian Church, another outreach that depends largely on volunteers and monetary donations from New Covenant and others in The Villages.

Marlene said the stark contrast between those who have and those who struggle is enough to compel her to the mission.

“We are in a little oasis of plenty,” Marlene said of her home in The Villages. “Right outside our boundaries, there’s certainly need. We feel blessed to do what we do.”

But since she and her husband began coordinating the food pantry in May 2005, she has collected additional reasons to continue the work: the people she serves.

“They have limited means of income, but they usually always give us a smile and say, ‘We are grateful for what you do,’” she said.

“We just try to love them.”

Wildwood food pantry volunteers
Bill Gray of Wildwood UMC and Randy Cowles of New Covenant UMC are among volunteers who help distribute bags of food to those in need at the Wildwood UMC food pantry.

The pantry draws on the efforts of up to 60 volunteers from Wildwood UMC and New Covenant, and it would be difficult for Wildwood UMC to do it alone. Worship services there draw about 100 people. At New Covenant, attendance hovers around 1,500, spiking to around 1,900 in the winter months.

Don Huggins said New Covenant and Wildwood UMC took on the food pantry after another local church could no longer keep it up. He estimated that 40 to 50 families sought help each month in 2005.

In the poor economic climate that followed, the needs multiplied. Last year, the food pantry distributed almost 210,000 pounds of food, more than double the amount handed out in 2008. People from rural areas across northern Sumter County come to the pantry for help, Don said.

Volunteer efforts include packing and transporting canned and packaged food donations, driving to the USDA distribution site in Land O’ Lakes to pick up government surplus and shopping for items needed to balance out the family meals.

In the spring, the food pantry teams up with the Wildwood Soup Kitchen to raise money in a campaign called Seeds of Hope. This year, the joint effort raised about $36,000. The money helps volunteers buy food during the summer, when many residents of The Villages leave for their homes in the North and food contributions slow to a trickle.

Marlene estimated she’s spending $5,000 to $6,000 a month to keep the food sacks full until the snowbirds return.

“Right now, we’re spending lots and lots and lots of money,” her husband said. “We try to give a consistent food supplement to our recipients no matter what time of year.”

New Covenant also supports the Wildwood Soup Kitchen at First Presbyterian, which served 75,000 meals last year. Volunteer kitchen manager Gail Merrell said the operation could not reach so many people without the help of people from The Villages, including many from faith-based organizations.

Wildwood UMC food pantry volunteers
Joan Jory and Grace Lobb of New Covenant UMC volunteer their time to help those who come to Wildwood UMC seeking food.

Volunteers drive four routes to deliver about 130 meals a day to shut-ins. All totaled, about 120 to 130 volunteers log hours at the kitchen regularly, and Merrell has a waiting list of people who want to volunteer.

The ministry was founded in Oxford but moved to Wildwood in 1994 to provide a more central location for those with limited transportation, Merrell said.

“People can walk to it,” she said. Recipients are divided almost equally between whites and minorities, she said. In the summer, the kitchen sees a boost in the number of children seeking meals.

Merrell said human companionship can be as important as nourishment for many who receive food on-site or at their door.

“It may be the only time they see anyone in a day.”

Marlene Huggins said some longtime pantry visitors have mental health challenges. She enjoys reaching out to build relationships.

“We have had one gal from Day One,” she recalled. “She came at first being very distrustful. As we got to know her, she kind of always had a negative outlook, but I think she comes to us because we can listen to her talk, we can hold her hand and walk her to her car.”

As volunteers circle up for prayer before the pantry opens, they don’t worry about what church someone belongs to, Marlene added.

“We want to be of one sole purpose, and that is to show God’s love and give everybody a word of support and a smile and touch if they let us.”

For information about the Wildwood pantry or kitchen, click here.