The elderly woman spied the box of clementines at the Waterville Food Bank and asked Beth Thomas if she could have one. Thomas, the food bank’s volunteer coordinator, said that of course she could.

The woman plucked a small orange fruit from the box.

“She took just one and I said, ‘No, honey, you can have the whole box,'” Thomas recalled. “She said, ‘I can?’ and she began to cry.”

Thomas told me this story Wednesday as she and food bank president David Dawson and volunteer Bill Lee — not the city solicitor of the same name — stocked refrigerators with fruit and vegetables they had picked up at Wal-Mart. Every month, Wal-Mart donates 15,000 pounds of food to the bank, located at the Pleasant Street United Methodist Church.

That and other donations of food and money help feed Waterville residents who can’t afford to buy food, and their numbers are increasing. Dawson said most of them are seniors.

Last year, 3,570 people asked for food, either for themselves or their entire family, and received 250,000 pounds of food. They may pick up food every 14 days. Some have been coming for years, while others may come once or twice and not return. The food bank is open 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays, as well as 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Each time, about 20 families seek food, Thomas said.

“You have the family that comes because they don’t have enough food stamps, or somebody lost their job. They’re a single parent. They have mental illness,” she said. “One couple comes here once a year. I think he must work seasonally. We have battered women that come, some of whom share their stories, some of whom don’t. A lot of single people, some with or without children, that are just struggling. They’re all nice people. One gentleman walks from College Avenue and on a number of occasions in the winter, he helped me break up ice outside. You get a lot of people come for the first time and they are actually crying because of how much food we’re able to give them.”

Dawson, Thomas and Lee were busy Wednesday because they were short-handed. They don’t lack volunteers, but this time of year many are on vacation and some are sick, they explained. Fortunately, four students from the Glenn Stratton Learning Center at Good Will-Hinckley in Fairfield were on hand to help unload the van of food from Wal-Mart. The kids come once a week and enjoy volunteering, according to behavioral specialist Glen Martin, who accompanied them. Martin said the kids learn about the value of volunteering.

“We try to instill in them a good work ethic, too,” he said.

The food bank has about 60 dedicated volunteers, including retirees, college students and local schoolchildren. It is not a part of the Methodist Church, but the church donates the space, including five rooms in the basement where food is stored. The food bank contributes to the church’s electrical bill, but otherwise, it is housed there rent-free. The food bank networks with other food banks and charitable organizations, and they help each other out with food if needed.

“The community is filled with caring volunteers and caring people,” said Dawson, who has been president eight years. “The people that are in line for food are very caring toward each other also.”

Donated money is used to buy 60 percent of the facility’s food, from places such as Save-A-Lot and Good Shepherd Food Bank in Lewiston. About 25 percent of the food is donated by Wal-Mart, and about 15 percent by the government, Dawson said.

For 35 years, food bank volunteers have helped feed the hungry, without expecting recognition.

On Tuesday night, however, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro and the City Council gave them a 2016 Spirit of America Volunteers of the Year award.

Isgro said Maine ranks first in New England and 12th in the nation for food insecurity, with 35 percent of the state’s food-insecure population making too much money to qualify for public assistance and having to rely on charity. The city, he said, appreciates the vital work the food bank and its volunteers and supporters do. At the council meeting, former Mayor Karen Heck stood to say it is up to everyone to pitch in.

“The kids who are hungry today are going to be leaders later on,” she said.

Dawson and Thomas, as well as food bank volunteers Amy Earickson, Emily Atkinson and Arlene Strahan, the former city clerk, accepted the award from Isgro. On Wednesday, Dawson said he and others were touched by the accolade.

“I was very happy,” he said. “We’re not really in this business for awards, but it’s nice to be recognized when you’re helping people. Hopefully, it will give us more visibility.”

City Councilor Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, recommended the award be given to food bank volunteers after they visited the South End Teen Center to learn about what it does for youth. Soule, the center’s director, said he admires them for what they do behind the scenes: “I believe they are inspirational and define what role models truly are.”

The food bank accepts donations of food and money at its 61 Pleasant St. location. It is greatly appreciated, by both volunteers and clients, according to Thomas. She knows those clients and their stories intimately.

“There’s one young mother who walks all the way from the trailer park by Thomas College on West River Road. She comes in here and puts the food in a stroller with her toddler and pushes it back home. Some people save money so they can walk here and take a taxi home. The average family probably takes 70-plus pounds of food.”

Thomas recalled a time the food bank got some fresh, leftover flowers that had been donated by stores, and volunteers handed them out to people as they came in for food.

“One lady cried her heart out because no one had ever given her flowers before,” she said.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 28 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.