Last updated: May 17. 2014 2:51PM - 947 Views

Volunteer Lafraye Parker, seated in foreground, prepares a box of packaged foods for clients at Hands of Hope food pantry. Lending a hand is Hands of Hope Director Sue Stanfield. Hands of Hope is one of two food pantries and several other local agencies participating in the Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger.
Volunteer Lafraye Parker, seated in foreground, prepares a box of packaged foods for clients at Hands of Hope food pantry. Lending a hand is Hands of Hope Director Sue Stanfield. Hands of Hope is one of two food pantries and several other local agencies participating in the Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger.
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Sue Stanfield is like many another person who, after a long, careful search has at last found the job she’d been hoping and praying for: Director of Hands of Hope food pantry. She could talk all day, in her excited, animated way, about how she loves the work and the people she works with and the people they help.

And she never seems to tire of taking visitors on a guided tour through the building, showing the small waiting room, which is crowded four days a week with people who would often go hungry without Hands of Hope; then Beth Grindle’s small, intricately organized office; and then the food–selection area and the stuffed warehouse.

Talking and touring, Sue is bright-eyed with wonder that her job could be so ideal for her.

However, being Director of Hands of Hope is not a new job for Sue Stanfield. She’s been doing it for 27 years, ever since Victory Life, the sponsoring church, was, as Sue puts it, “just a double-wide trailer.”

On the August day the food pantry opened in 1989, 18 families showed up. In the September just past in 2013, Hands of Hope moved 154,000 pounds of food, and 858 families selected food from its shelves and bins. The total number of food distributions to local households in the preceding nine months was 29,279.

“The need is getting greater all the time,” Sue says. Beth reports that as many as 68 new families have come to Hands of Hope in a single month.

The food pantry has had its present location on the northeast corner of 12th and West Main in Durant for just over 12 years. Until that time, it was on the church grounds on University Blvd. When the pantry was displaced by fire in 2002, the saved food supply was moved to a church-owned facility in Boswell. Daily for three hot late-summer months, the food would be hauled into Durant “in a horse-trailer and distributed under shade trees.”

Hands of Hope Looks Toward the Future

The present building, opened to end the Boswell-to-Durant-to-Boswell hauling, will soon be remodeled and connected to a large warehouse that Hands of Hope will manage for the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank as a pick-up station for smaller food pantries throughout the southern Oklahoma area.

It will contain many refrigerators and freezers so that more meat and other perishables can be made available.

“Right now, parking and freezer space are our two biggest problems,” Sue says.

The remodeled facility will have a larger waiting room and shopping area for clients. The new facility and parking will occupy the entire block on Main Street from 7th to 8th. During remodeling and construction, Hands of Hope will be housed in the old White’s Garage on South 9th.

And the entire facility will be air-conditioned for the first time. Beth continuously shows a smiling, friendly face except when someone asks her about the lack of air-conditioning in the present building. Then the smile vanishes, the corners of her mouth sag, and she’s not so cheerful any longer. The staff from office to warehouse, indoors and out, paid and volunteer, do their jobs year-round without air-conditioning, cooling or heating.

Groundbreaking for the new facility will be held very soon.

Staff and Volunteer Work Force

Hands of Hope has a few paid staffers: Stanfield herself, two warehousemen, and office manager Beth Grindle. It often also has a few community service workers (individuals required by a court judge to work for free a specified number of hours for some charity following conviction for an offense).

One person who did community-service work at Hands of Hope found the experience so positive that he later returned and hired on as a paid worker.

But volunteers compose most of the food bank’s labor force, numbering 15-25 people at a time.

All members of the staff are looking forward to having more space. The areas now used for waiting room, offices, and warehouse are inadequate for the parts they play in the overall operation.

Beth Grindle’s Organization

The pantry serves between 800 and 900 families a week, about 250 a day, and is open four hours a day four days a week, plus 4:00-6:00 pm on Monday.

At food distribution times, the number of clients waiting to be served is often too many to fit into the waiting room (which has only 28 seats), so some must stand in line outside (no matter what the weather) until a slot inside opens up.

In such cramped quarters, it is only through careful organization that the pantry is able to operate smoothly. To keep the line of clients moving efficiently, Beth developed a system of numbered tags and color-coded disks.

The organization begins at the front door, which is kept locked on service days. A volunteer oversees the waiting room and unlocks the door to let another client in when there is a vacant seat.

At the check-in counter, each client presents a plastic identification card with a bar code in which identification and number in that household are embedded. An attendant swipes the card with a scanner, then gives the individual a numbered tag (indicating his/her place in line) and two colored disks, their differing hues indicating the weekday of service and the number in that household. Disks and numbers are surrendered at checkout to be used again.

Providers for home-bound people pick up food for clients who can’t get to the pantry themselves.

The system now used has been developed through considerable trial and error. For instance, Hands of Hope had earlier tried stocking a series of shelves with food items and letting clients “shop” in those shelves, but that approach was labor-intensive and required closing down the line when re-stocking was needed. With the pallet system, clients choose foods in the warehouse itself, eliminating that extra step of moving items to shelves.

Clients take shopping carts as they enter the pantry and follow a designated route through the warehouse, passing pre-loaded pallets of canned and packaged foods. Signs at each pallet indicate how many of each item a client may take (based on the number in that household).

When one food pallet empties, a forklift quickly removes it and brings in another. In addition to the pallets, the shopping area includes shopping carts, boxes, and wooden bins holding items such as bread, crackers, and fresh produce. Meat is available from freezers.

Helping People

“Personal choice is very important,” Sue stresses.

Hands of Hope initially tried distributing standardized boxes of food put together by the staff, but soon learned that some items were thrown away or went unused because clients’ families couldn’t eat certain foods or did not have facilities to cook them. Now clients select from within a category of canned vegetables or packages of pasta the items that their households prefer.

Not only does the personal-choice system cut down on waste, but it allows clients to feel more “in control” of their families’ meals. It’s part of the pantry’s philosophy of respecting clients as individuals.

Along the route from waiting room to pantry service area is a prayer room (actually a prayer corner), where clients may step out of line and pray with an attending pastor if they desire, but no one urges them to do so; the prayer room is available only on request.

Although Hands of Hope Is a ministry of Victory Life Church, its purpose is simply to feed and not to proselytize. Clients aren’t given religious handouts or preached to.

“When people come to volunteer,” Sue explains, “one of the first things I say to them is ‘Don’t judge. Just feed. Don’t judge; just love and feed.’”

When Victory Life Pastor Duane Sheriff first brought up the idea of a church-sponsored food pantry 27 years ago, Sue wasn’t interested until a friend referred to it as a “ministry.” Then, things clicked, and she came to view the pantry as a means of serving the needs of fellow human beings.

“I didn’t know a thing about running a food pantry when I started,” Sue laughs. “It has been very much a matter of learning on the job.”

Trying to meet individual needs includes communicating with them by whatever method works best.

For Latino clients with limited English, a speaker of Spanish is available to assist.

For those with hearing problems, a volunteer deaf interpreter who knows sign language is there on site to help. Deaf clients know to come at the time she will be working.

Some clients don’t read well and so have trouble deciphering the signs in the warehouse that indicate how many of a certain item a client may take. Volunteers who monitor the pallets are trained to notice and offer help to anyone who seems not to understand a sign.

Volunteers Offer More than Food

“People who volunteer here have to be committed,” Stanfield notes. “They have to show up when they’re scheduled to be here. But I’ll find a spot for anyone who’s ready to help.”

Hands of Hope volunteers have included paraplegics and people who are blind, oxygen-dependent, and/or elderly. (One man volunteered at the pantry for several years and finally retired at age 95.)

Sue always stresses to volunteers the importance of helping clients retain their dignity in what is for many a difficult situation: having to ask for help.

One of her favorite anecdotes is about a man who came to the facility incognito, assuming that getting aid from a food pantry had to be a demeaning experience. Sue was leaving on “a bread run” that day when she passed a large man in bib overalls who was coming in. On returning, she learned that the man had asked for help with the application required of clients, saying he didn’t have his glasses. A volunteer guided him through that process and helped him choose foods. While checking out, the man broke into tears.

“I really came to see how you’re treating these folks,” he admitted, then presented Hands of Hope with a $100 donation because he was so impressed that clients were treated with respect.

Each Friday, Hands of Hope receives the order Sue has placed online that week with the Oklahoma Regional Food Bank in Oklahoma City, in semi-trailer trucks (one of them a freezer).

The Durant Wal-Mart also regularly donates foods, especially meats and breads, that are nearly out of date.

Victory Life Church, as well as groups within the congregation, contributes to the pantry, with individuals either giving cash or specific foods that Sue has indicated are needed at a given time.

Donations and volunteers from the Durant community are also greatly appreciated, of course.

“Cash donations are especially welcome,” Sue points out, “because they let me purchase foods to fill whatever gaps we have. And it’s a cost-effective way to contribute, because I can buy food cheaper than individuals can at a grocery. That’s the power of buying in bulk.”

Even with the expanded new quarters Hands of Hope will occupy, she fears some folk may not get the help they need,“ especially some elderly, who need everything but ask for nothing.”

She’s also concerned about the working poor, particularly since food stamp allotments have been cut. A household doesn’t presently qualify for help from the food pantry if someone in it is working.

Concern for others is, in Sue Stanfield’s own words, what has kept Hands of Hope going for 27 years: “I worry about people who are really hurting.”

(This is the fourth in a series of articles by The Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger about the extent of hunger in the county, the food sources available and their needs, and how all of us can help those in need. Future installments will feature the other sources and interviews with those who have benefitted from them. For further information, please contact Marion Hill at mhill@communicomm.com or 924-7715 or Joe Littlejohn at jelittlejohn@communicomm.com or 925-2845.)

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