What a gift! Van will help deliver meals to elderly and shut-ins

Natasha Woods wiped away tears of gratitude Christmas Eve as she stood in the parking lot of Mount Olive Feeding Ministry in Slidell, gazing in astonishment at a gold-colored van bedecked with a big red ribbon and surrounded by the smiling faces of those who had brought her the gift, the 2013-14 class of Leadership Northshore.

Woods, herself a graduate of the leadership development program, had moved some class members to tears in September when she gave them a heartfelt explanation of what the poor and hungry in the area endure.

On Tuesday, it was her turn to be emotional.

“Wow,” she said repeatedly. “This is amazing, you guys.”

Joan Archer, program director for Leadership Northshore, has long brought participants to Mount Olive’s feeding program to help them learn about social services in St. Tammany Parish. Usually, half of the class serves food to those who come to the site six days a week for meals, and the other half rides with the program’s delivery vans, which take meals to shut-ins.

But this year, the delivery part of the experience wasn’t possible, Archer said. Woods explained that two of Mount Olive’s three vans were no longer working, which meant longer waits for those who depend on the program for a hot meal.

“She gave her personal witness, how it feels (to be poor) and how this is a calling,” Archer said. “It was so powerful, three or four of the leadership class were in tears.”

Class member Carolyn Baringer was one of those impressed by Woods’ passion.

“She told us the story of driving up and the people are waiting on their front porches with their medicine in their hand,” Baringer said.

For elderly and shut-in meal recipients, the longer waits caused by loss of the vans meant not just being hungry but delays in medication that needs to be taken with food.

Archer, who has been involved with the leadership program for 22 years, said this year’s class, which has 23 members, has “a lot of heart.” Some participants were shocked to learn how hunger exists in their community, right under their noses, she said. For others, who grew up in poverty but have achieved success, Woods’ comments “tore a scab away,” Archer said, making them realize an obligation to give back.

That’s exactly what the class did. A significant part of Leadership Northshore, a yearlong program, involves community service, with the class dividing into teams to tackle a project, as well as attending classes that give members insight into government, social services, cultural arts and other parts of the community’s fabric.

This year’s projects include building a community garden to enable Community Christian Concern to provide fresh food to food pantry recipients, and raising money to buy a new smoke-demonstration mobile home for the Fire Department.

But after a discussion, the class decided to take on an extra challenge: buying a new van for Mount Olive’s feeding program out of their own pockets.

Class member Bobby Juge, a criminal investigator with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, suggested bidding on a vehicle in a Sheriff’s Office auction. The class was outbid but didn’t give up. Juge was able to work with a wholesaler, Jack Hutcheson of MJM Wholesale, who spent several months looking for the right vehicle for the ministry. He managed to find a 2001 Mercury Villager van with only 47,000 miles on it, class members said.

The amount that the class had collected was a bit short, Baringer said, but Hutcheson decided to contribute as well, and the class was able to present Woods with the van and a $600 gift certificate to pay for maintenance costs.

Class members hugged Woods and encouraged her to get in the driver’s seat and start up the engine, pointing out that the van’s extra seats could be moved to allow more room for meals.

Woods, who said the Mount Olive program feeds 300 people six days a week, 50 to 100 of whom are shut-ins, said she would put the vehicle to use immediately.

She also gave credit to the current class.

“OK, I surrender. This is the best leadership class ever,” she said.