In the mid-1980s, the Rev. Vernon Strickland of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was approached by his congregation. The church needed an outreach mission, they said.
The reverend’s response, according to Bread of Life Food Pantry treasurer Johnnie Pond: “‘We have a need here. Let’s do something.’”
From that conversation, the idea that became the Bread of Life Food Pantry was born. Strickland’s heart for serving needy Johnson County residents has been passed down from pastor to pastor, from congregation to congregation and from pantry board to pantry board.
“We call it a food pantry, but it truly is a mission for each and every one of us,” Pond said.
Early next month, that mission will be passed on to another generation as three longtime board members of the 10-member food pantry board step down from their leadership roles. Board Chairman Pam McFadden is stepping down after 13 years of service, vice chair Jo Ann Palmer is leaving after more the 20 nonconsecutive years on the pantry board, and Pond is exiting after 12 years of service.
“I have absolutely loved all of it,” McFadden said. “It has really been an honor and a privilege to serve on the board for so long, and I’m excited to continue working as a volunteer. If I had to walk away and never enter those doors again, I’d be sad. But I know we will all help as much as we can, even though we’re leaving the board.”
In early February, McFadden, Palmer and Pond will pass on their roles to younger and more energetic board members, McFadden said. Kelly Norris is becoming the chairman, with Kari Hanson as her vice chair. Wes Killian will become the board’s new treasurer. The new board members were nominated and elected by the current pantry board, McFadden said.
“I was terrified that, when I finally stepped down, I was going to be the judgmental mother-in-law looking over the new board’s shoulder telling them that they were doing things wrong,” McFadden said. “But I don’t have to worry about that with this group. We’ll really be able to turn it over and smile and just look excitedly towards where they will take the food pantry.”
Through the leadership of McFadden, Palmer and Pond, the food pantry has reached several milestones in the past decades, McFadden said. When McFadden first started work with the food pantry, as the “bread lady” in charge of making sure the pantry was stocked with bread, the pantry had a monthly budget of $600. Today, that monthly budget tops $8,000.
According to McFadden, the increase is due to both overwhelming community support and ambitious grant writing and fundraising efforts on the part of the pantry board. The pantry has raised funds in recent years through auctions at the last three North American Basque Organization conferences in Buffalo, the annual “Zombie Run” fundraiser and an auction of a Wyoming Game and Fish commissioner’s hunting license.
“We brought in $30,000 that first year I joined the board,” McFadden said. “When you were coming from a place of a $600 monthly budget, that made a world of difference.”
In the mid-2000s, the food pantry also received a grant to expand the pantry building. McFadden said this might be what she is most proud of during her time on the board.
“It is hard enough for people to stand in line asking for food,” McFadden said. “It was even harder when they had to stand outside in the snow and temperatures that were 20 degrees below zero. It was really adding insult to injury. At the very least, people can wait inside now, and I’m very happy about that.”
As the pantry’s budget and building has grown in size, Pond said that he has seen the heart of the community grow as well.
“I am very proud that the community has accepted the fact that our patrons are in this position and that the community is willing to help,” Pond said. “I am very pleased to know that we have bridged that gap and taken away that stigma that says, if you get food from the food pantry, you must be worthless.”
After a while, the small acts of kindness shown at the food pantry add up to a point where they become difficult to count. McFadden, Pond and Palmer don’t know just how many lives they’ve touched through the simple act of showing up day after day to meet people’s needs, but they’re glad they could do it, Palmer said.
“I am most proud of the fact that we have always been there,” Palmer said. “We have always been able to sustain having the shelves stocked. People know us. They know they are always welcome at the pantry. No one was treated any differently than I would treat a friend, and I’m incredibly proud of that.”
“In this time of texting and tweets and Instagram, it really touches the heart to connect with another human being face-to-face,” Pond said. “It means a lot to the patrons, and it means a lot to us. When you receive a personal ‘thank you’ or see somebody come in and cry a little bit, it makes you understand that the world is still human. There are little things that happen that make your heart soar when you witness them. I’m going to miss that.”