Food Pantry opens door of opportunity

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

One day last year while I was talking with Dawn Fox, the media specialist at Woodleaf Elementary School, head-custodian Mike Aistrop, walked through the media center as part of his daily routine. After he left, Mrs. Fox turned to me and said, “You should write a story about Mike.” Intrigued, I later learned to write about Mike would mean including his passion for the Food Pantry at South River United Methodist Church in western Rowan County.
This story began about 14 years ago when Mike’s pastor at the time, Tom Mabry, asked him to deliver four boxes of food to a needy family in the community. Mike and his wife, Tina, made the delivery together. Seeing the need of that family touched Mike’s heart so much, he knew there must be others in the community who could use some help.
The early years of the pantry at South River consisted of laying out food on a few tables in the back of the fellowship building. Little by little as people heard about the ongoing project, they began donating money with 100 percent of it used to purchase food. While most of the food is bought through donations, sometimes community events such as the food drive at Woodleaf Elementary School or church groups such as Heart of a Sportsman from Cornerstone Baptist Church in Cleveland donate food instead of money.
With the amount of food necessary to supply the needs of the community growing, by 2006 it was almost impossible to store the food in the fellowship building. That’s when Mike and Tina, with the church’s blessing, applied for a Duke Endowment grant for a new building.
Today, as you drive up the long driveway of the church around to the back parking lot, you’ll see a beautiful white building that to many means food for another month.
The Food Pantry is open the third and fourth Saturdays of each month, with registration beginning at 8 a.m. in the fellowship building. To register, participants fill out an application and are given a number, not only tracking how many families participate, but also helping with organization.
Once everyone has a number, Mr. Mike (as he’s known in the community) opens with a welcome, followed by scripture and prayer. Receiving no federal, state or local funds, the Food Pantry has the freedom not only to address a person’s physical needs, but spiritual as well.
The morning I was there, Randy Ward shared scripture from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, explaining how Isaiah prophesied the death of Jesus over 700 years before the event.
After the message and prayer, participants began moving through different stations, including a conference room and prayer table where specific needs were addressed in private. At the same time, volunteers were busy preparing orders in the Food Pantry behind the church. When all stations were complete, participants then drove their cars to a designated spot to load groceries. Volunteers bagging and sorting groceries said they were especially thankful for the little red wagon they now use to transport groceries from the Food Pantry to the cars. The wagon, donated by Cub Scout Pack 308 under the direction of Trent Pence, was donated as a result of seeing a need in the community.
It was a very humbling experience to see the grateful hearts of those who came to South River that morning. Many offered thanks for the facility and said they didn’t know what they would do without it. Three women I talked with said the Food Pantry helps by filling in the gaps when food stamps run out. Riding together from Davie County to save gas, they waited in their car for several hours on a cold morning to be first in line.
To provide food and support to the community on such a grand scale, volunteers must be a part of the process. Mike trains each volunteer for specific jobs, and I was impressed to see even young adults and teenagers volunteering. Several of them had been with the program since the beginning.
Thirteen-year-old T.J. Cobb, a student at West Rowan Middle School, said he likes to volunteer because he enjoys helping people.
Gregory Lottes, a high school student at North Hills Christian School, explained, “Volunteering at the Food Pantry has been a life-changing experience for me because it opened my eyes to see how great the need really is in the community.”
Adults like Charles and Melinda Cranford volunteer at the prayer tables, listening to and praying for the needs of those who come each month. Charles said he can relate because his family was so poor they didn’t have hot water and often went to bed hungry. He remembers asking his dad one time why he didn’t try getting welfare, to which his dad answered, “Son, that’s for poor people.” Charles laughs now, but growing up, it didn’t seem funny.
One of Mike’s good friends and also a volunteer at the pantry, Guy Maher, became involved with the ministry after joining South River about seven years ago.
“Watching Mike interact with people at the Food Pantry, it’s obvious this is where God wants him,” Guy said. “Without donations, the Food Pantry couldn’t exist, so Mike takes pride in being a good steward, making the money stretch as far as possible. Since part of the responsibility of a good steward is discerning who’s really in need and who isn’t, people who come to the pantry understand Mr. Mike is going to get them what they need, not necessarily what they want.”
Being a pilot with his own plane, Guy said sometimes he takes Mike up in the air to get away for a while and relax. In the air he doesn’t have to worry about how he’s going to pay for food or how he’s going to help a single mom pay her light bill. For just a little while, Mike can rest his mind, body and soul.
As with many who understand poverty, Mike, too, grew up poor, often going for days without food. Bitter for many years about the life he had as a child, he was able to resolve that issue about 15 years ago, with God’s help.
“When I came to realize God gives us what we have today in order to make us who we need to be tomorrow, my life turned around,” Mike said. “It was only then I was able to help others, with the door of opportunity opening up for me through the food pantry.”
Thinking back to my conversation with Mrs. Fox at Woodleaf School last year, now I understand why she said I should write about Mike. Mrs. Fox knew underneath Mike’s quiet exterior was a man with a huge heart and a huge capacity for helping others. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see that firsthand at South River one cold Saturday morning in January.
If interested in volunteering your time or donating money to the Food Pantry at South River United Methodist Church, check out the website at for more information, or call Mike at 704-798-9098. Not only will you be helping the needy, but you’ll also be helping Mike sleep a little better at night, hopefully dreaming of a fully stocked food pantry for life. Now that’s what I’m talking about.
Dicy McCullough’s books are available in local bookstores, and Barnes and Noble. Contact her at 704-278-4377.