Jimmie Hutson said that his wood stove burns the whole winter and must be fed every few hours. Living on a fixed income, he said it’s a blessing to be able to rely on free firewood courtesy of the Willow Community Food Pantry, a ministry of Willow United Methodist Church.
“They take care of me. The truckload I picked up today should get me through the winter,” he said.
Hutson is not just a recipient of the ministry, he also volunteers there, stocking pantry shelves and delivering firewood to others. After recovering from esophageal cancer, he said he spent a few years sitting at home and got bored.
“I came here and asked if they needed help, and I’ve been here four or five years,” he said.
“Because of the food bank, I know everyone in the community. A lot of people around here really depend on the food bank; it’s quite a blessing.”
The food pantry began in 2005 out of a space the church had been using to store donated clothing. Pantry director Ola Williams, then chair of the church outreach team, said they realized there was more need in the area for food than clothes.
“The first year, we supported 35 families a month. Now we’re up to 170-200 families a month and we’ve helped a total of 745 individuals already this year,” she said.
In addition, every Friday the pantry distributes bags to 60 students with two breakfasts, two lunches and snacks to get them through the weekend. The pantry also provides small vouchers for gas as well as the firewood.
“The population of Willow is only 2,000, so you can see what a percentage they serve,” said the Rev. Christina DowlingSoka, co-pastor of Willow United Methodist Church and superintendent of the Alaska Conference.
“Some people we serve are living in buses or little trailers off grid, with no heat or running water. So, when winter goes long, it’s a matter of survival,” she said.
Williams said it’s taken a long time to build relationships, as many of those living off the grid tend to be mistrustful of others.
Fortunately, she said, “everybody knows the UMC is there to help. We have people who have nothing, but they’ll call and tell us they need propane for their heater or whatever.”
The food pantry has a number of partnerships with other community entities that provide necessary resources like food or transportation.
“People often don’t have transportation when they’re off grid, so they come to us and we can take them to get water or showers or other needs,” said Ron Brooks, a driver with Sunshine Transit, a community organization providing low-cost transportation.
DowlingSoka said the ministry is called the Willow Community Food Pantry rather than Willow United Methodist Food Pantry because it’s a true community endeavor. Volunteers from other churches and those who aren’t churchgoers work side by side with Willow members. People who receive services from the pantry volunteer there as well.
Though the church only has about 54 members, the growth of the pantry program led them to construct an addition to the building. That addition was vital when COVID-19 began to spread.
Williams said that in the course of a week, they had to completely reimagine the distribution process, from letting people come in to select their own groceries to pre-packing individual bags and distributing them in the parking lot — even in temperatures as low as 20-below-zero. They didn’t return to indoor distribution until November 2022.
DowlingSoka, who came to Alaska from serving in Tennessee, described her new home as an “area of extremes,” be it extreme need or extreme cold. This reality requires that an otherwise routine ministry like the food pantry be approached in a different way.
excerpt from a story by Joey Butler, multimedia producer/editor for United Methodist News.
This story represents how United Methodist local churches through their Annual Conferences are living as Vital Congregations. A vital congregation is the body of Christ making and engaging disciples for the transformation of the world. Vital congregations are shaped by and witnessed through four focus areas: calling and shaping principled Christian leaders; creating and sustaining new places for new people; ministries with poor people and communities; and abundant health for all.