TRENTON, N.C. — It was over 15 months ago that Hurricane Florence ravaged parts of central and eastern North Carolina.
“When you first experience it, you think it’s just a bad rainstorm. But then you start to see the devastation of it and then realize the time it’s going to take,” Brian Cornelius, pastor of Bryant Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church, said in an interview this month. “Recovery is a long process, especially after a storm like that.”
All these months later, food insecurity remains a problem in the area and volunteers regularly provide assistance. Three days a week (and at least two Saturdays a month), Rebecca Baines Cisse and her husband, Ibrahim Cisse, drive the 20-plus miles from their home in New Bern to volunteer at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s Trenton pantry. That’s every day the pantry is open.
“When you enjoy doing something and you know it’s the right thing to do, you don’t really get tired at the end of the day,” said Ms. Baines Cisse, a retired teacher. “Your adrenaline motivates you to come back the next day.”
The food bank is one of the state’s many efforts to address the impact Hurricane Florence has had. This pantry is an outgrowth of the one organized through Bryant Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church in Cove City, N.C., which expanded after the hurricane and received a grant last year from The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund through Feeding America. This year, Feeding America is one of seven beneficiary agencies of The Fund; the hunger-relief organization supports a network of 200 local food banks, including Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
Mr. Cisse and his wife volunteered at the pantry even before it moved to Trenton, and they drove food from New Bern to families in Trenton who they knew needed help in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Since February, they have overseen the Trenton pantry, which is run out of a trailer on land owned by Trenton Baptist Church.
The operation is a partnership between that church and two others, Bryant Chapel and King’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, which help staff it.
“There are a lot of people behind the scenes, people who are really struggling themselves, trying to make it better for someone else,” said Wilbert Nicholson, the pastor of King’s Chapel, in Trenton. “These are the people the world doesn’t get to see, the world doesn’t get to know. But when they come here to volunteer, a lot of them know the individuals by name. They have built a rapport with them.”
The Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina usually operates through a network of partner agencies, which receive food from the bank and distribute it in their communities. The Trenton pantry is the first time that Food Bank has worked on the front lines of food distribution.
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Jeanette Banks comes at least once a week to volunteer on days off from work, though she is also balancing caring for her two children, 9 and 20, a mother in a nursing home and a sick father.
Ms. Banks was in the process of moving to a new house in Trenton, where she had unpacked beds and clothing, when Hurricane Florence hit. She lost everything else at her old home, including her vehicles. With the loss of electricity, her food spoiled, and she found herself relying on the food pantry.
Mr. Cornelius was also personally affected by the storm. Four feet of water flooded his home, and he is still living with his mother because of the damage.
“Despite what we lost, I think we’ve gained much more in our humanity caring for one another and looking out for one another, subverting our egos, humbling ourselves toward one another,” Mr. Cornelius said. “As we recover one by one, then we take the focus off ourselves and we focus on someone else to help them recover.”
Last month the pantry served 1,287 households, or 2,960 individuals, and the numbers were expected to go up in December because of the holidays.
The close-knit group of volunteers has gotten to know the regular beneficiaries. Ms. Banks sees many of them at the pharmacy across the street, where she works. When a family came into the food bank recently, Ms. Baines Cisse called out to another volunteer to grab the cans of Chef Boyardee they had, saying she knew that’s what they would want.
“It is a community project, and we are meeting a lot of people in the community that you normally wouldn’t see, and in the process you’re building a rapport with those people,” Mr. Nicholson said.
The pantry allows its recipients to save some of the money that they would normally spend on food and instead spend it on bills, repairs or medications. Mr. Cornelius and Mr. Nicholson saw people taking less than their prescribed amount of medicine so they could also afford food. Others are still displaced, either homeless or staying with family members, and trying to save up.
The Trenton pantry will operate as long as needed, its organizers said. And the volunteers expect to continue working together.
“When we’re in trouble,” Mr. Cornelius said, “there’s nothing like being in trouble together.”
Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online, or with a check or over the phone.