Mike Fisher pulls into a gravel parking lot at an unnamed township building in New Plymouth, Ohio. He leaves the truck engine running and unlocks the building’s door, stepping inside to set some binders and a makeshift rolodex down on a table.
He has just come from the St. Francis Outreach Center in McArthur, about a 20 minute drive south from New Plymouth. His truck was loaded with boxes of food, packaged earlier that week at the outreach center. Fisher is the longest serving active member of the St. Francis and has been with the mobile unit since the center started this service 20 years ago.
The outreach center has been in McArthur helping feed and clothe Vinton County families for over 30 years. Today, an on-site staff of four is responsible for helping feed over 400 families a month. It hosts a food pantry, a clothing center and the mobile unit that delivers food to the corners of Vinton County.
The site’s Operations Manager Ashley Riegel says the center provides a 6-day emergency supply of food basics to Vinton County families once a month, with more food given to larger families. A standard box contains peanut butter, meat cans, tomato sauce, vegetables, fruit and more, designed to help families stretch their meals.
Fisher’s job is to make accessing food supplements easier for Vinton County residents, so that they don’t have to drive all the way to McArthur to pick up food.
He’s usually joined on delivery runs by Greg Covey, but on this afternoon Covey is needed in McArthur to help Riegel and Staci Rafferty serve over 170 senior citizens scheduled to pick up food supplements provided by Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, which happens every first Tuesday of the month.
So Fisher went solo this time. It doesn’t seem to bother him.
For all of Vinton County’s expanse, there are relatively few permanent residents. The county’s small towns and villages are scattered, but Fisher’s interactions illustrate a general ease of communication that sprawls across the county’s hills.
After all his time delivering food to New Plymouth, Ratcliffburg, Wilkesville and Zaleski, Fisher knows a lot of Vinton County residents.
“You back again?” he asks with a smile after a woman in a minivan pulled up to the township building. He recognizes the car; he knows the driver.
Fisher and the driver walk into the building so the woman can sign some papers from the binder Fisher placed there earlier, verifying the pick up. She, like anyone else who would stop by within the next couple of hours, is here to get food — one box for her and another for her also-registered distant cousin.
She and Fisher talk with seamless familiarity. They head back outside, where Fisher moves boxes of food from the back of his truck to the side door. She loads up her trunk, says her thanks and waves goodbye.
“See you next month,” Fisher says, before getting back in the truck to wait for the next person while the AC hits his face.
Another car pulls up, this time driven by a young woman who recently finished a shift at a nearby fast food restaurant and has a baby waiting at home.
“You back again?” Fisher asks with a smile.
Fisher’s knowledge of the people he serves isn’t forced, and it isn’t limited just to their personal lives. Despite growing up outside the county, he has an intimate understanding of specific patterns and outlooks of Vinton County residents.
He doesn’t expect to see too many people on this delivery run. He’s in New Plymouth, the smallest community the mobile outreach center serves. It is also the first Tuesday of the month, which — like the third Tuesday of the month — meant people would be at home, waiting by their mailboxes, he says. Payday.
“Where we might normally do between 15 and 30 [families], we’ll be lucky if we do 10 today,” Fisher says.
Fisher says the St. Francis Outreach Center is a resource many Vinton County residents turn to before they use government assistance.
“It’s funny because a lot of people think that you would come to a food pantry when you ran out of food and your food stamps were gone,” Fisher says. “If you talk to most of these people, they come to us before they get their food stamps.”
Part of the reason why folks in need are willing to turn to St. Francis first is because the on-site staffers are either from Southeast Ohio or have been in a similar position before.
Riegel grew up in Southeast Ohio and was introduced to the center when she and her husband both lost their jobs over 10 years ago.
“I was using the pantry myself. Me and my husband were both unemployed at the same time,” Riegel says. “So, we had to reach out and get help from the food pantry out toward Wilkesville — one of the mobile sites, actually.”
Shortly after, Riegel’s friend told her about an open position at St. Francis. She started at entry level and worked her way up to operations manager, a post she’s maintained for three years.
Fisher, a central Ohio native, was originally assigned there by Vinton County Job & Family Services after he lost a custodial job at a nearby school.
“I went and signed up at human services, and back then you had to work for anything you received, and I was raising three girls on my own,” Fisher says. “And, they stuck me at St. Francis, that’s how I even found out [it].”
Once Fisher finished his Job & Family Services stint at St. Francis, he was hired to work the mobile delivery unit full-time and has been in that position ever since.
Rafferty and Covey, the two newest additions to the staff, both have connections to Southeast Ohio. Rafferty grew up in Vinton County and went to school in Wilkesville, and Covey married a county resident and used St. Francis’ clothing center before he was employed there.
This sense of familiarity and approachability hasn’t always been so apparent.
The center, which is a branch of the Catholic Diocese of Columbus, was originally an effort to promote Catholicism in Protestant-dominated Vinton County, but the center’s roots in advancing the Catholic faith aren’t as prominent anymore.
“Thirty-five or 36 years ago the idea was to come down to build a Catholic church,” Fisher says. “But when they got down here, they realized the need, and they opened up the food pantry and a clothing center.”
For years, the center was run by at least one nun through the diocese. Riegel says it was a tighter ship then — staffers had less free-rein to talk and get to know residents and the pantry couldn’t play popular music.
But now, new and old familiar faces and relatable backgrounds have created a sense of ease that has connected the center with the community, which has helped St. Francis provide a public good that isn’t necessarily attached to the food and clothing supplements they provide.
“We’re not just handing out clothes or food sometimes. It’s sometimes just a listening ear,” Riegel says. “It’s sometimes just that, that we’re here and we can hear what they’re saying and we listen to them and try to help them in any way we can.”
Riegel turns to a letter of appreciation written by a young mother of five who uses St. Francis to help feed her family to highlight the many things the center offers.
The unnamed woman and her husband hold jobs, but still need help with supplemental food and clothing. The family visits the food pantry branch of the center the allotted once a month. She says food from the center allows her to stretch the meals she puts on her dinner table, and ensures that her children won’t have to skip meals.
“There is a sort of shame that people like me can’t help but to carry because we just don’t have the resources to make ends meet, but I’ve never felt looked down upon for being a frequent visitor of St. Francis,” she says. “I’ve only ever been met with a warm greeting and a genuine smile.”