By Susan Hill Smith for The Island Eye News
They connect in the parking lot of Isle of Palms First United Methodist Church Saturday mornings through the heart of the summer – church volunteers greeting vacationers who drop off leftover groceries before heading back home, a ritual for almost a quarter century.
Last year alone, the church’s Loaves and Fishes ministry collected more than 1,000 pounds of food that otherwise could have become waste and took it to East Cooper Community Outreach, where it was shared through a food pantry for low-income families.
Church member Inge Baechler stepped up to lead the mission in recent years, always assisted by a capable co-chair, like Laurie Pounds, to whom she is officially “passing the torch” this summer.
“She’s doing a great job and will carry on, and somebody else will learn from her,” says Baechler, who has an incredible energy for volunteering, but is ready to retire from Loaves and Fishes as she nears age 94. “Like so many of the volunteer things in the church, people will step up.”
Former island resident and church member Conway Saylor originally came up with the idea for Loaves and Fishes in the mid 90s. Since then, Baechler says, the concept has attracted attention from off the island. “Other churches – people from other towns even – would say. ‘How did you set this up?’”
On Isle of Palms, rental agencies, restaurants and other businesses help spread the word about Loaves and Fishes to vacationers, who are encouraged to donate any unopened or individually packed food and grocery items as they leave town Saturday morning after checkout.
Not surprisingly, volunteers take in a lot of canned goods, snacks, cereals and other items with shelf-life. But they also save fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and other cold items that they store in the church’s refrigerators and freezers until everything is taken Monday morning to ECCO. Household products like cleaning supplies are also welcomed.
“We take everything from them, and we sort through it in the kitchen,” volunteer Lindajean Robinson explains toward the end of a productive shift.
Robinson and fellow volunteer Joan Bolton report a “pretty good haul,” from the morning, including two carts full from one departing group, along with some extra goodwill from a vacationer who drops off every year. “What a blessed ministry,” the visitor told them.
Volunteers love that kind of feedback, and they enjoy connecting with other church members as well. “Each year I’ve done it, I’ve met somebody new,” Robinson says.
The following week, Scott Morris and Karen McCoy team up to take contributions when a Kansas City couple stops by on their way to the airport. Maureen and Dick Pedrotti hand over avocados, hummus, coffee and “a pound of butter that we didn’t even touch.”
While they visit Isle of Palms every other year with family, the Pedrottis didn’t know about the program until this summer when they picked up a note about it at The Refuge. In the past, they would usually throw their extra groceries away or give them to family members who were driving home. From now on, they intend to bring what’s leftover to Loaves and Fishes.
In addition to her volunteering at church, Morris is also a longtime volunteer at ECCO. She explains that ECCO’s pantry allows clients to select items rather than giving them food they don’t want or need, an efficient way to provide relief to neighbors who live in pockets of poverty in East Cooper.
Vacationers and area residents may not see that reality, she says, “but it’s there.”
Loaves and Fishes will continue to accept grocery donations this summer from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays, through Aug. 4, in the Isle of Palms First United Methodist Church parking lot at 21st Ave. and Palm Blvd. Businesses that would like to help publicize the program should call the church at 843.886.6610.