Kathy Ehrlich of Marion and her family had donated food to the Marion County Food Bank for years when it was housed at Valley United Methodist Church.
The program moved to expanded facilities in a former gas station and youth center earlier this year, and tacked “and Resource Center” onto its name and mission. Ehrlich decided it was time she volunteered to help on food distribution days.
“I had wanted to do it for a few years, but I had children,” she said. “I felt this was something to do for people of the community and surrounding areas.”
Ehrlich works at Hillsboro Community Hospital with people who don’t have enough money or insurance to pay for their health care, so she was no stranger to need in the community.
Still, she was taken aback by whom she saw coming to the food bank on her first night as a volunteer in June.
“I expected young families,” she said. “I did not expect the elderly. That was kind of shocking to me actually.”
The tug on her heart was so great that Ehrlich had to step away for a few moments to regain her composure.
“I had to go to the bathroom and shed a few tears and regroup,” she said. “It was hard. They’re somebody’s grandfather or grandmother. Just knowing people worked all of their lives and then found themselves in this situation was heartwrenching.”
But the response of elderly people can also be heartwarming, Ehrlich said.
“There was one elderly lady who only had like a bag and a half,” she said. “I was the one checking them in that day, along with Doug Kjellin, and she was so gracious. She said, ‘Someday I hope I can be on that side of the counter.’ You could tell someday she wanted to pay it back.”
The center also gets its fair share of younger families, and the number of people from around the county seeking assistance continues to grow.
“I work the fourth Thursday of every month, and the last time it was a line clear around where they had the car wash,” Ehrlich said. “It’s pretty overwhelming to see how many people use it.”
As she has walked with people to help them choose and carry food items, Ehrlich said she’s realized that the people in need of help from the food bank, similar to those who need help with medical care, don’t fit age-old stereotypes.
“Just because I’m not in that line today doesn’t mean I won’t be in that line tomorrow,” she said. “They’re just like you and me. People have a stereotype that people don’t try, but they’re hard-working and they have minimal resources. Theyr’e just trying to make ends meet.”
Now that she has some experience under her belt, the hardest part of volunteering comes on days when there’s not enough food for everyone that shows up, Ehrlich said.
“It’s horrible, it’s awful,” she said. “Particularly when you know kids aren’t getting the food. They’re school-age kids that need to be fed appropriately, and we just flat ran out. We didn’t have enough.”
She said the item they most often run short of is meat. One Thursday they gave all they had, which left none to hand out the following Monday.
Still, the work is rewarding for the gratitude patrons express, and in knowing she’s helped to make life a little easier for them, Ehrlich said. She hoped more people would start to volunteer.
“Anybody can do it,” she said. “You just smile at these people when they come in, so they feel welcome. It’s a great way to make a difference in our little corner of the world.”