By Marcia Frellick
Charolette Tidwell’s Bluetooth earpiece goes in at 8 a.m. almost every morning. That frees her hands up for the work ahead in her Fort Smith, Ark., community: shopping for enough bulk produce, meat, bread, milk and eggs to fill 500 grocery bags for the hungry; organizing a small band of volunteers; sorting food; loading the 35-pound bags onto a truck; and visiting with the families who receive them.
Meanwhile, she fields calls about how to contact medical providers or how to feed kids home from spring break, since they usually get free breakfast and lunch at school. She and her volunteers also load boxes of food into wagons, homemade carts or whatever families bring to collect food. “I’m tiny, but I’m strong,” she said, with her trademark belly laugh.
The earpiece comes out at 11 p.m. That’s six days a week for Tidwell — seven when she delivers food in emergency situations on Sundays. Her team’s efforts feed about 7,000 people a month. Not bad for a 69-year-old retired nurse.
Tidwell, BSN, MEd, RN, directs the Antioch Consolidated Association for Youth and Family, a nonprofit organization that operates out of a two-story building in one of Arkansas’ poorest communities. It is the third-largest food pantry in the eight-county area. She and the volunteers run a family center and mobile food pantry for seniors who fall through the cracks — because the seniors are not medically homebound, they can’t qualify for federal Meals on Wheels deliveries, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program checks (food stamps) they get don’t stretch far enough and don’t cover non-food household items. “For my seniors, I always provide things like toothpaste, paper towels and toilet tissue when I can get my hands on them,” Tidwell said.
15 years and counting
She started the organization in 2000, the latest outgrowth of a lifetime of service. Before Antioch, she helped with the Lincoln Youth Service Center started by her husband, Lawrence, a sergeant in the Fort Smith police department, and two other officers who led outreach for seniors and troubled youth.
Lawrence Tidwell died in 1997 during a two-year period in which Charlotte also lost her mother and a sister to cancer. She funds Antioch mostly with her nursing pension, then donations (including the building), then the kindness of others who offer to change light bulbs or make repairs. She buys food at about 8 cents per pound from the regional supplier for food shelters. Antioch tries to give families enough food for at least three weeks of each month. Tidwell checks identification for accounting purposes and proof of residency, but makes no restrictions on who can get food. Volunteers sometimes wear coats while packing to save heating costs in the home building because “the money has to go to the food,” she said.
She lives on what’s left, which doesn’t take much. She hasn’t had a vacation since 1999, the house and 2002 car are paid off, and her two children are grown and settled in Dallas. She pays for basic utilities and insurance.
Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development for the River Valley Regional Food Bank, which supplies most of the food, sees Tidwell every day and is one of her biggest fans. Two days before Easter he found her at a store buying Easter baskets for nursing home residents. She is like no other volunteer he’s met: “It’s fortitude married to passion,” he said. “I’ve never seen anyone work as hard or as long.”
Painful discovery changes her route
When the program first began, Tidwell distributed food from a truck, but a conversation with a grocery checker six years ago told her she needed to do more. The checker said she had been writing down elderly people’s names so she could get help for those she knew didn’t have pets but were buying cat and dog food for the cheap protein. “I can’t imagine in America that we have reduced a senior population who gave us so much love and mentoring, and we are complacent they eat that for their protein,” Tidwell said. That’s when she started driving to senior citizen complexes.
Feeding families is about 70% of the work, she said, but helping youth is another focus. She puts kids, ordered by the court to complete community service, to work at Antioch and teaches them her mission. She also has mentored young people, taught them how to cook healthy food, and has even taken some into her homes.
Tidwell knows she can’t physically keep up this schedule forever and she hopes that the community comes together to carry on what she started. Immediate needs are for expanding the building space and building a loading dock, But ultimately, the effort will take establishing a community that realizes when people are fed, they can pay their bills and work and keep businesses open, she said. “Elderly, middle age, young adults and children. I’m trying to get their consciousness back to a realization that one can always help one.”
Marcia Frellick is a freelance writer.
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Read Part 2 at Nurse.com/Article/Tidwell-Part2.