Many Hands Make Meaningful WorkFor thirty-five years Oxford has rallied around The Pantry to help those in need.
BY ANDY BELT
PHOTOS BY LIZZIE MCINTOSH
Thirty-five years ago, an organization was founded in Oxford that would help countless people and families. The Pantry has provided food for those who might need that extra bit of sustenance, and the countless volunteers who run and work at the facility have been more than ready to accomplish the task.
Since the beginning, longtime Oxonian Ann O’Dell has been there. O’Dell, The Pantry’s President of the Board, started the facility with the help of five churches. The group got the idea after reading about a minister in Memphis starting a similar food pantry in the city.
“It seemed like if they could do it there, we could do it here,” O’Dell remembered. “(The five churches collecting food) had gotten to the place where they didn’t have any more storage space and so they came together and started The Pantry.”
In the early days, an old two-story building next to the Presbyterian Church housed the charity. Wil Howie, a family counselor, acquired shelving from a grocery store that was closing and The Pantry began training screeners to interview people who needed help.
When the Presbyterian Church eventually had to tear down the building, The Pantry moved down the street on Tyler Avenue into a Boy Scout hut adjacent to First Baptist Church. Around the time Baptist had to sell the hut, something miraculous happened.
In 2001, John Bostick, the President of Sunshine Mobile Homes, offered to build a facility specifically for The Pantry. At long last, they would have a home to call their own.
“We had a committee who went more than once to Alabama to meet with (Bostick), and he designed it,” O’Dell said. “There’s a reception room and three small rooms where our screeners have private conversations with our clients. Then there’s the grocery store area and the storage space. It’s just worked so well. Grocery stores gave us carts. There were lots of gifts that came along.”
The past several years have seen at least 13,000 people come through The Pantry for assistance, and many are repeat visitors. With its motto, “we share because we care,” it’s no wonder that so many have felt welcomed as soon as they walk through the non-profit’s doors. The Pantry also serves an estimated 50 homebound clients.
“It’s been so satisfying,” O’Dell says humbly. “Personally, I’ve been given so much in terms of ideas, excitement and joy that it is my great pleasure to try and share with others. This is the idea that everyone who works with The Pantry has. We have become more and more a household word in Oxford.”
O’Dell is quick to credit the generosity of churches, civic groups, and volunteers. Their help as it made possible for The Pantry to never have to run a capital funds campaign. Each month, a different group will handle the duties necessary to keep the doors open. O’Dell notes that the Oxford pantry is one of the few to run solely off the willingness of volunteers.
One of those volunteers, June Rosentreter, has worked with Ann for over two decades at The Pantry.
“Starting The Pantry was a tremendous endeavor,” Rosentretter said. “It was her idea. It’s definitely grown; in the early days, people would leave with one bag of groceries. Now, the big families sometimes have to have two carts.”
Like Rosentreter, many of The Pantry’s volunteers are retirees. And while Rosentreter is in good health, O’Dell says that illness and natural aging will affect those who wish to participate.
“To work at The Pantry requires a lot of physical labor,” O’Dell said. “Either you’re lifting boxes and cans of food, shelving or you’re going through the aisles with a shopper and you’re on your feet a lot. We thought we might have to close this past July because we didn’t have enough groups to help.”
Fortunately, that was not the case. Lead pastor at Community Church Oxford, Fish Robinson, stepped in and became The Pantry’s manager for the month.
“He became the manager because he knew we’d have to close otherwise,” O’Dell said.
The summertime is a typically harder time to find volunteers for The Pantry since Oxford’s population tends to dwindle. Robinson said he and his congregation did not hesitate when the call came from O’Dell.
“Ann did an amazing job of reaching out to me and then coming alongside and helping me,” he said. “I think she’s great and the amount of time she puts in is just awesome. She cares for lots of people she doesn’t even know. It’s encouraging and inspiring.”
Another person who came in to The Pantry “like gangbusters,” according to O’Dell, is John Kohne, the Director of Food Distribution. Kohne joined The Pantry in 2014 after retiring from Fed Ex a year earlier. According to him, he joined because he “had to get (his) hands in something.”
From the first time Kohne met O’Dell, he has only had the highest regard for her.
“Every good organization has a leader,” he said. “Ms. Ann is definitely a matriarch and one of our strongest founders of the Oxford Pantry. “She is the one that’s still in there, still fighting daily to build on The Pantry’s association with the local community.”
“For being the seasoned lady that she is, she is very vivacious, concerned and really accomplishes things where a woman of her seniority might be sitting back and just enjoying things,” Kohne continued. “She’s not that lady.”
Aside from her work at The Pantry, O’Dell has made her impression amongst her Oxford friends. They know her as someone active in book societies and a skilled quilter, and Rosentreter referred to her as a “master gardener who loves to share the food she grows.” That common thread of charity has run through most of O’Dell’s life.
As for the future of The Pantry, O’Dell has a selfless wish.
“We’d like to see it go out of business,” she said. “We’d like to see everyone be able to take care of themselves. We don’t see ourselves as much more than a Band-Aid. A week’s worth of groceries is a week’s worth of groceries. We are not alleviating the need, just trying to supplement.”