Founders of the 25-year-old Reach Out Lakota non-profit say “it was a God thing to begin with” that has turned into a unique opportunity for neighbors to help neighbors.
Reach Out Lakota turns 25 this year and the food pantry has gone from a Christmas food drive started by one of the co-founders, Sharon McGuire, to serving about 2,500 people and distributing 18,000 pounds of food each month.
“It’s been a quick moving 25 years that’s for sure,” McGuire said. “But it’s been amazing to see how God has really blessed the organization and blessed us in a tremendous way. I’ve always told everybody it’s been a God thing from the very beginning.”
McGuire said the whole operation started when she answered an ad in the newspaper for help with a Christmas food donation program for the needy in the community. She teamed up with Kathy Franks and Sue Lewis from St. John’s Catholic Church and they started contacting churches within the Lakota boundaries and opened their doors in a 1,000-square foot location in Pisgah in 1992.
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They opened the location on a wing and a prayer.
“We got seed money (from local churches) and we had no clue, we were just stepping out on faith,” she said. “We had no clue what was going to go in the future.”
The three quickly decided they needed help so they hired the current director Lourdes Ward to run the pantry. Ward said the pantry provides all manner of support, not just sustenance. Clothes, personnel items, paper cleaning items, housewares, the list goes on and they have special programs for Back to School, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Ward said the most important thing for people in need to know is the pantry isn’t just for people typically thought of as clients of a food pantry. She said they have people from gated communities who have fallen on hard times due to divorce or illness or “some sudden change in their circumstances” and everyone is welcome.
“We help people from all income levels who are having trouble meeting their basic needs for their family,” she said. “It’s not a hand-out. They are people just like you and me… People still walk up to me and say where do you get ‘those’ people, and that bristles. They are not ‘those’ people. People say, ‘oh the poor people.’ That’s not a reasonable term to use to refer to the families we serve.”
The organization moved to its current location at 6561 Station Road in West Chester and is open three days a week. In addition to Ward they also employ Peyton Gravely, director of development and marketing, two part-time employees and an army of unpaid volunteers.
McGuire said they operate through the generosity of local churches and others who give contributions, they have some grants and Gravely is also their fund raiser — he started the Corporate Challenge to pull in that segment of the community and they participate in other fundraisers.
Gravely said the support has been overwhelming.
“Since July 2015, we have experienced an annual increase of 36 percent in private charitable fiscal donations. This shows just how involved and vitally important the community we serve is in helping us achieve our goals and assist those in need,” he said. “Additionally, we have increased our foundation and civic-organizational based grants by 44 percent and tangible charitable donations by 50 percent.”
McGuire said she never dreamed there was such a need in the Liberty and West Chester communities but their longevity and success are testimony to their continued existence.
“We want people to become self-sufficient so we try to give them that hand up,” McGuire said. “I would have had no clue there would have been those kinds of needs and of course those needs continue, they don’t diminish unfortunately. We have a lot of job security there.”
Reach Out Lakota protects the identities of the people they serve, but shared a heart-felt testimonial from two people who are very grateful.
“We take this time to say thank you and we are truly grateful. We thank you for not being selfish and for not being hateful. Thank you, thank you, thank you…two words we cannot say enough,” the testimonial reads. “We thank our Heavenly Father for blessing you with us! To all whom donate and the volunteers at Reach Out Lakota, from our hearts to yours, may our Father continue to bless you all.”