For a while now, people have been noticing a curious sight on Conover streets and sidewalks.
From a distance, the sight appears to be a man carrying a backpack, a bundle so large some have theorized that he’s homeless.
The truth is, the figure is the Rev. Brian Weaver, pastor of Family Life at Concordia Lutheran Church in Conover, and on his back – safe and snug in a frame-and-canvas apparatus – is his 9-month-old son.
Weaver said he is accomplishing a number of goals during his frequent and fast-paced walks: One, he’s providing a fun outing for his son; two, he’s giving his wife, Victoria, some quiet time; and three, he’s getting in shape for a 108-mile spring hike along a portion of the Appalachian Trail.
A fourth goal will be realized once the hike commences: raising money for Eastern Catawba Cooperative Christian Ministry and the Corner Table, a soup kitchen in Newton.
The project, called Hike Out Hunger, is intended to raise at least $50,000.
“In Eastern Catawba County, we have a serious issue at hand in our population,” Weaver said. “Around 20 percent of our community is not getting the proper nourishment they need for a healthy life.”
People on the front lines call it food insecurity, something the rest of us may have thought was abating since national news offers encouraging figures about unemployment, the stock market and consumer spending.
ECCCM Director the Rev. Bob Silber sees the need for food first-hand, and the outlook is not so rosy, as the county and its environs continue to suffer from lost furniture and textile jobs.
People are finding work here and there, but they’re under-employed, said Silber. They don’t make enough to pay bills, and those 50 or older can’t find work at all. “They’re looking and they’re frustrated,” he said.
Both Silber and Corner Table Director Summer Lee Jenkins say there is a misconception that their organizations mostly serve homeless people or men and women unwilling to take care of themselves.
The majority of ECCCM’s clients and the Corner Table’s guests is employed or has had a job, and some are taking classes to learn new skills. The clients simply do not have enough money to pay bills – mortgage and rent payments, utilities, food, pharmaceuticals, clothing and fuel oil and kerosene.
And then there are the children.
“We feed a lot of kids,” said Jenkins. “We have several babies right now.” The Corner Table asks no questions, offering a hot meal to whoever shows up Monday through Friday between 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.
Jenkins said the soup kitchen feeds, on average, 170 people on Mondays and as many as 215 on other days. On Fridays, volunteers distribute to-go bags – 800 to 1,000 per month – that contain food that doesn’t need refrigeration.
Silber and Jenkins say they worry Catawba County residents are going hungry because they have no transportation to their facilities.
“We’re starting to look at other ways we can get food to people without them coming to us,” said Jenkins. “One idea is going into the community to distribute frozen meals.”
Another is opening the soup kitchen at night, which has been tried before, attracting about 80 guests. Jenkins said they were not the same people who come for lunch.
Weaver conceived the idea of Hike Out Hunger “while hiking around last summer,” he said. “I’d come home and eat trail mix (for a snack) and then later have dinner. I realized I had more food than 20 percent of our population in Eastern Catawba County, not including homeless people.”
“There are parents who look at their child and have to say, ‘No eating tonight,’ ” Weaver said. “To me, that’s just unacceptable that people have to have that conversation.”
Silber expressed appreciation for all the food that’s donated to ECCCM and the Corner Table, but he wants contributors to know that he and Jenkins can purchase food more cheaply than the average shopper.
“A donated dollar becomes $2 or more depending on the price point of the purchase,” Silber said. Additionally, Silber and Jenkins know exactly what their organizations need and can make appropriate purchases.
As for helping clients with bills, ECCCM does ask questions: There is “a stringent interview process to see where the crisis is,” said Silber, followed by coaching concerning budgeting; living within one’s means; goal-setting; writing resumes; planning for future crises, such as car breakdowns; and menu planning.
Silber said United Way is helping to fund the Crisis Assistance Coaching Program, which at first doesn’t appeal to some clients, but in the end often prompts expressions of appreciation. Silber said 430 people were coached in 2014, “and now they’re even saving a few dollars each month,” he said.
ECCCM, like Corner Table, distributes food to anyone in need – about 1.4 million pounds to 16,000 families in 2014.
In 2015, $50,000 will go a long way, especially during summer, when donations drop. Weaver and his friend Conover resident Nathan Vanover plan to hike from Fontana Dam to Hot Springs in western North Carolina, from May 18-29.
The journey will be all the more pleasant knowing fewer parents will have to say, “No eating tonight.”