This is a story about two of my favorite people in the whole wide world and what happens when we shake things up a little and step out of our comfort zones.
First, a little history:
About three years ago, I was lucky enough to become the director at Belmont Community Organization, a crisis agency established in 1956. The BCO is a veritable hive of activity.
In addition to giving out food to about 200 families each month, we also have a huge warehouse (we call it the Belmont Dillard's) full of clothing, housewares, furniture and appliances – all donated by people in our community – that we give to our clients at no charge.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Because I'm the only paid employee at the BCO, the onus of much of the work that happens each and every day falls to volunteers, and I can tell you that the BCO volunteers are the best anyone could ever hope to have.
Sometime during my first week on the job, one of those volunteers, Maude Davis, prepared an enormous feast for everyone. At the time, I assumed this was a special send-off for the departing director, but I was wrong. Turns out, Maude does this at least twice a year, and I have to tell you, it's just plain amazing, and so is she.
Maude grew up in Union, S.C., the third of 11 children in her family.
She's lived in Belmont since 1962. About four years ago, a fundraising plea was distributed at Mount Moriah Baptist Church, where Maude is a member.
“I figured even though I didn't have any money, I could still help,” Maude told me. “So I came down here and started working.”
That's an understatement. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Maude shows up at the BCO to work in the warehouse, where, along with many other regulars, she sorts through donations and puts things away for hours on end. And she laughs.
Maude has her own special laugh that you can hear from anywhere in the building, and it is positively infectious. No matter what's going on or how she's feeling, Maude always seems to find something to laugh about.
Maude's good humor is one thing she has in common with another volunteer, 19-year-old Michael Mann. A 2007 graduate of South Point High School, Michael is the younger of two children. Michael has been volunteering summers for about six years now, ever since his mother, Robin, insisted he do so.
Simply put, he's fabulous.
There's nothing Michael won't do, and always with a good heart. And the fact that almost every volunteer at the BCO is a woman doesn't faze him at all; he just pitches in and acts like one of the gang. So every Wednesday and Friday, Michael shows up at the BCO to work with us up front, and when we're not busy, we laugh.
The work seems to have gotten under his skin: He started at N.C. State last year majoring in computer science and has since changed his mind and now majors in business management with a minor in nonprofit studies. So as different as they are, Maude and Michael have something else in common: They both share a strong commitment to the work they do at the BCO. And yet, since they work on different days, they'd never even met.
About a month ago, I asked Maude if she would cook for Michael before he returned to school, and she agreed. We settled on June 24, a Tuesday. After I told Michael about it, he showed up to meet Maude, more than once, which is of course exactly what this fine young man would do, and she was pleased.
Feast day arrived, and Maude showed with the biggest meal she'd ever prepared for us. Here's what she made: ribs, fried chicken, baked chicken, pot roast, collard greens, corn on the cob, homemade creamed corn, fresh green beans, pinto beans, cabbage and okra, steamed cabbage, mashed turnips, asparagus casserole, broccoli casserole, squash casserole, pickled beets, potato salad, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas, marinated carrots and cornbread. There were four different cakes for dessert.
All that cooking takes about a week, Maude said, and she doesn't even go to bed the night before. And here's the kicker: she does all of this cooking in her tiny, immaculate kitchen, with no air conditioning. Why, I asked her, do you do this for us?
“Because I love you,” she answered, and that's all she offered.
Maybe I caught her in a moment of weakness, because I actually was able to get some good information about her fried chicken wings, which are mysteriously super moist and crunchy at the same time.
Though there's nothing particularly unusual about her frying technique, she does something I'd never heard of before. “Soak some paper towels in margarine and put them between the layers of chicken and then on the top,” Maude said, beaming. “That's what keeps it moist.”
About 30 of us ate that day, and needless to say, no one left hungry. Best of all, Maude and Michael, two of my favorite people from entirely different worlds, got to know each other a little better. As I watched them together, I felt like I'd won the lottery.