After nine years volunteering at the food bank, Betty Lou Jones has many observations to share when I ask her what she has learned.
“I learned that hunger doesn’t discriminate. Hunger doesn’t play favorites and you can’t tell, walking down the street, who’s hungry and who’s not. Hunger is not something that is really visible.”
Jones, 80, tells me this after giving me a tour of the Greater Waterville Area Food Bank at the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church in Waterville.
“We just acquired a refrigerator,” she said, motioning to a large stainless steel fridge on the back wall. “Now we can have fresh vegetables. We only had a few before, because we couldn’t keep them over the weekend.”
The food bank, a nonprofit corporation that opened 31 years ago, survives on donations and is entirely staffed by volunteers. The Methodist church provides the space at no cost.
Jones says she will miss the people she volunteers with when she and her husband, Edgar, move next week to Portland to be closer to their daughter, Alison.
“Everyone’s going to get my address and everyone’s going to get an invitation to come south,” she says.
Jones is a lovely woman with snow-white hair, glasses and blue eyes that particularly stand out, as she is wearing a blue sweater and slacks this sunny weekday morning.
She explains that food bank patrons must be income-eligible to receive canned goods, milk and other food and are referred to the bank by the Salvation Army or the city’s General Assistance program. Last year, the food bank served 1,539 families — a total of 3,328 people.
When patrons come into the food bank, Jones tries to engage them in conversation to let them know they are welcome.
“I’ve been here when a mother came in with a tiny baby and she was in tears because she really didn’t want to come here. She was embarrassed. I said, ‘That’s why we’re here. We’re here to perform a service for the people that need it and obviously, you need it.’”
Some people who come are recent homeless shelter guests who finally got an apartment, but have no food, she said.
“That’s when I sort of bend the rules and I fill their bag up. We really get all kinds of people, and you cannot judge. You don’t know whether that big car they’re driving is theirs or a neighbor’s. Income-wise, you know that they’re needy or they wouldn’t be here.”
One woman, a regular, loved to be offered extra, unusual items most patrons do not want, such as figs, Jones said.
“She hasn’t been here for a long time. She had a really big need. Sometimes women go through a divorce and have little kids and no money. They come here once and they get themselves on their feet and they don’t come back. That’s a good sign. Then we have other people who come here every two weeks, on the dot.”
Volunteering isn’t just about handing food out, Jones, mother of three and grandmother of seven, says. She often finds herself educating people about how to prepare food. For instance, she offered one man some dried beans but he said he did not know how to cook them. Jones told him how.
“Some people don’t know what to do with rice, so we provide a rice recipe. A person may live in one room and have only one burner to cook on and very little silverware. We’ve had people come in and ask for a can opener.”
Volunteering has helped Jones to be thankful for what she has.
A retired registered nurse, she is no stranger to giving. She and her husband, a retired United Church of Christ minister, have spent a lifetime helping those in need.
After the couple settle into their new home, they plan to look for volunteer positions.
“I don’t think of it as volunteering,” Jones says. “It’s my job. My husband volunteers at Inland Hospital and he says, ‘Don’t forget, I have to go to work tomorrow.’ Both of us look at it as just part of our lives.”
Volunteering also gets you out of the house and enables you to meet people who are different than you are, she says.
“It lets you see the crosses other people have to bear, the problems other people have and how they deal with it. For me, it’s just important. It’s like we’re put here for a reason, and if you can’t figure it out, volunteer and you’ll find it.”
Jones will be sorely missed, according to food bank president Dave Dawson.
“You’ve been a phenomenal volunteer,” he tells her.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.