In the fight against hunger, food pantries in Bryan Country are on the front lines. Besides providing vital daily nourishment for those in need, they’re an important reminder that others notice their plight and care.
The Hands of Hope Food and Resource Center at 724 W. Main Street in Durant is one such pantry. Since its 1988 beginning in a small double-wide trailer, Hands of Hope has steadily grown. It’s now open four days a week in a recently expanded building Monday 4-6 pm and Tu, Th & Fri 7-11 am for clients to pick up food. Assistance is income-based at Hands of Hope.
Also, it acts as a distribution center for Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. The pantry’s website notes that, including distribution to several Oklahoma counties, Hands of Hope now serves “well over a million pounds of food a year.”
Comments posted on the pantry’s Facebook page by Hands of Hope clients and volunteers, as well as remarks by clients interviewed at the pantry, reveal how important that help is, also that people from many walks of life can find themselves in need of the pantry’s help.
Misti is an example of clients who have dealt with food insecurity for much of their lives. She recalls times when, as a child, she watched family members steal food so she and her siblings could eat. She also recalls the pain of being laughed at by other kids because of her shabby clothing.
“One of my first memories of school,” she says, “was the excitement I felt when I went to the cafeteria. I didn’t know that variety existed when it came to food choices and quickly lunch became my favorite part of my day.” Lunch made the rest “bearable,” she explains.
Whereas most children look forward to summer and school’s being out, Misti “hated the thought of school breaks,” because summer “was a time when food wasn’t guaranteed to us.”
But Misti’s situation is far better today. She’s healthy, has a beautiful family and a handful of grandchildren, and is a big Hands of Hope booster.
So is Pam, whose story is told on the pantry’s Facebook page by a Hands of Hope volunteer who became her friend. Pam is a senior, lives on a fixed income, and before coming to Hands of Hope was reduced to eating cat food.
“This place [the pantry] has changed my life and has made me happy again. I don’t go to bed hungry and I share with everyone I know how amazing it is.”
Many tell of having experienced better times but finding their lives in a downward spiral after a job loss, a divorce, or unexpectedly huge medical bills—or sometimes a combination of these life-changing events.
Roberta has been married twice and divorced for many years. She has worked as a nurse at a clinic, at a hospital, and in home health, but hasn’t been able to work since 1998. She began having memory problems and quit her job at a hospital when, while working a night shift, she realized she was forgetting medications for patients.
She also has endured multiple surgeries and illnesses, but believes those problems were given to her for a reason, to help her learn something she needed to know.
John was living in Hooks, Texas, working at a good job at Red River Army Depot, when he became ill with diabetes, had to file for Social Security, and hasn’t been able to work since. He and his wife moved to Durant to be near family and initially learned about Hands of Hope when he brought his cousin to get food there.
At his cousin’s urging, John signed up as a client himself.
“The last few months, my wife and I have been coming every Tuesday,” he says. “We have been having health problems, but coming to the pantry really helps us out. At the end of the month, things get really close. It is a wonderful thing they are doing here.”
Hands of Hope is supported by Victory Life Church of Durant, as well as by private donations. Although the church sees the pantry as part of its overall mission and provides a private area at the pantry for any who wish to pray—a volunteer may pray with the client if that person so desires—the religious aspect of Hands of Hope isn’t “pushed” at clients.
Many pantry clients do, however, credit faith in God with helping them make it through dark times in their lives. Misty, who had arrived in Durant with “just enough gas to make it to the church parking lot,” became a member of Victory Life after the staff at Hands of Hope helped her get not only food but also a bed and “praise God a hot shower.”
Now Misty has a job and her own apartment and has signed up for college classes, one of many examples of someone’s finding her way after getting the temporary help she needed at a pantry.
LaDonna says her own income is very low, but she “gives her time to the Lord” by helping the elderly and children. She often comes to Hands of Hope to get food for others who aren’t able to come themselves. Having no car, she must walk several blocks carrying groceries, her own or those for others.
She especially appreciates the fact that the pantry not only provides food to needy people but also gives guidance in meal preparation.
Some clients, and even workers at the pantry, do admit to having made bad choices, such as getting into drugs early in life. Vincent says his battle with drugs started when he was 11 years old, and he fought that battle for the next 30 years. During that time, he notes, “I lost almost everything that ever mattered to me.”
But “with the love of my family and the power of God,” Vincent says, “I was miraculously delivered.” His family, wanting him to stay clean and healthy, urged him to find something to do with his free time, so he began volunteering at Hands of Hope. That turned out to be life-changing for him:
“For the first time in my life, I felt valuable. I felt like I had a purpose.” Vincent now works at Hands of Hope as warehouse manager.
Though pantries may have a few paid staff, they are heavily dependent on volunteers to keep their operations running. Hands of Hope has four regular staff members and about 25 volunteers, ranging in age from 13 to 90.
Some volunteers start out as clients themselves and, as their own situations improve, begin helping out at the place that assisted them when they were in need. Not only do clients often mention what a relief it is to have their needs met by the pantries, and not only do they speak of liking the people who man them, but a trip to the pantry is also a social occasion.
“For many,” LaDonna observes, “this is the only chance they have to get out and be with people all week.”
Roberta agrees. “For some people, coming to the pantry is the joy of their week. They get out of the house, and also see their friends here.”
In fact, the atmosphere at Hands of Hope is far different from what some might expect. It’s not one of gloom and dejection. Rather, it’s full of friendly chatter, laughter, encouragement, and a general expectation that things will be better tomorrow than today.
Besides Hands of Hope, other Bryan County pantries are: St. Catherine’s House, 1015 N. First St. in Durant, open Wednesdays 1:00-3:30 pm except first Wed. each month; Choctaw Nation Food Distribution, 2352 Big Lots Parkway in Durant, open 8:30-3:30 Monday through Friday; Colbert First Baptist Church Pantry, 307 N. Franklin in Colbert, open fourth Tuesday, 10:00-noon; and River of Life, 1280 Mockingbird Lane in Durant, open Tuesdays 10:00-1:00 pm.
Submitted by the Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger.