On January 5, a bone-chilling 19-degree day, residents at Vantage House, a retirement community in Columbia, could have been enjoying one of the wealth of activities offered right in their own building – like playing scrabble, watching a movie, or shooting pool.
But instead, several residents boarded a Vantage House bus hauling food donated by Vantage House residents. When they got to their destination – the Howard County Food Bank in Columbia – the residents, with the help of their bus driver and a mechanical lift on the bus, unloaded the boxed food and put it in shopping carts which they rolled into the food bank to be weighed.
After brief oral instructions from volunteer coordinator Sarah Schindehette, the residents moved the shopping carts into the food bank warehouse, pulled the donated food out of the boxes and sorted the items into categories so they could be placed in their proper places on food bank shelves later.
Those who know the food bank’s procedure, might think the volunteers had skipped a step – checking the items’ expiration dates and getting rid of any donations that do not qualify to be placed on the food bank’s shelves. But these are seasoned folks, not just in life but in food bank procedures. They knew eliminating food that did not meet the food bank’s requirements was part of their volunteer job so they had proactively thrown out unqualified items before they left Vantage House.
During the residents’ two hours of volunteering, they also sorted food donated by others and, if they wanted a sit-down assignment, organized items designated for emergency toiletry bags bound for the homeless.
Most food bank volunteers do not come armed with donated food – volunteer service, which is essential to running the food bank, is contribution aplenty. But these are not conventional volunteers. Myrtle Johns, a petite, spry, 92-year-old who lives at Vantage House, has made it her mission in recent years to collect food for less advantaged people. In addition to the 470 pounds delivered to the food bank on January 5, Mrs. Johns oversaw the collection of 266 pounds that was delivered on November 3, 2017.
While Mrs. Johns is the chief force behind the Vantage House donations, she gets help from others who live at the retirement community. Mrs. Johns calls those who help “her committee.” Edith Albrecht, Rebecca Birnie, Sue Buswell, Doris Johnson, and Philip Reitzel are on that committee. Their main duty is to take donated food out of the large collection boxes at Vantage House and put items in smaller boxes so they are light enough to carry and transport.
“Just about everybody at Vantage House donates,” said Mrs. Johns, who doesn’t miss any opportunities to advertise her annual Howard County Food Bank drive, which runs October through December. Mrs. Johns has Vantage House design and update posters that are displayed throughout the building, runs an announcement in the weekly Vantage House bulletin, and makes oral reminders on the Vantage House bus when residents go shopping. And then there are those large boxes with food bank collection signs located in the Vantage House marketplace that serve as constant reminders the last few months of the year that a food drive is underway.
In Mrs. Johns’ mind, discovering a canned good sale is akin to unearthing a gold mine, except she doesn’t want to keep it to herself. She shares that information with others so they can buy the food at discount prices and donate more to the food bank.
If residents cannot go shopping, Mrs. Johns is happy to collect their money to either buy food to donate on one of her shopping trips or to give the money to the food bank.
Mrs. Johns, who started her food collection crusade about six years ago, was initially inspired to help the local community after daily discussions with another Vantage House resident, Ann Miller. Ms. Miller, who died in 2013, was extremely concerned about food issues and the needy. In 1979, she founded the Maryland Food Bank. After attending a discussion group at Vantage House about homeless people, Mrs. Johns, a retired licensed practical nurse who rose to a supervisory level at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup, vowed to help people less fortunate than herself, and voila, Vantage House’s annual food drive for the Howard County Food Bank was born.
When Mrs. Johns turned 90 in November of 2015 her daughter threw her a huge birthday party at Vantage House for family and friends. At Mrs. Johns’ request, the invitation asked people to bring two cans of food instead of gifts, but some overachievers brought cases of food. The total Vantage House donated to the Howard County Food Bank that year was a whopping 976 pounds. “It was wonderful,” Mrs. Johns said with delight. “We were packing boxes most of the evening.”
“Myrtle’s an angel is disguise,” stated Doris Johnson, an octogenarian.
“Myrtle’s amazing. She’s my role model. I look at her and hope I can be in that good of shape, motivated, and full of energy when I’m her age,” stated Rebecca Birnie, who is 19 years Mrs. Johns’ junior.
At least four years ago, Vantage House started organizing volunteers to go to the Howard County Food Bank after Vantage House’s leadership team, a group of about seven people who lead various departments at the retirement community for more than 250 residents, expressed an interest in volunteering. The leadership team continues to volunteer twice a year with some residents joining them.
Because residents wanted to go more often, resident-only volunteer sessions were scheduled, said Social Services Director Kimberly Rosales. In addition to the two staff volunteer sessions scheduled in 2018, Vantage House residents plan to volunteer every other month. The social services director and concierge coordinator organize all the volunteers’ sessions.
“It’s rewarding and meaningful to be able to do something that improves someone else’s quality of life,” stated the social services director.
“If staff weren’t cheerful, cooperative, and supportive the food couldn’t get here and the people couldn’t get here. Our staff deserve credit,” stated Sue Buswell, a Vantage House resident who served as a delegate to the Maryland House of Delegates from 1983 to 1989.
Volunteer coordinator Sarah Schindehette also feels the Vantage House-Howard County Food Bank partnership is running on all cylinders. “What stands out about Vantage House is their excitement to serve with us at the food bank,” she said. “They come in with huge smiles and joke around, and get a lot of work done while they are at it.”
Mrs. Johns volunteers at the Howard County Food Bank. Some Vantage House volunteers are on the food bank committee and some are not. In addition to Mrs. Johns, Rebecca Birnie, Mary Ann Buchmeier, Jean Henyon, George Laniado, David Paulson, Charlotte “Tuckie” Pillar, and Philip Reitzel volunteered on that frigid January day.
David Paulson, who was the only Vantage House resident to drive to the food bank himself, says he volunteers because he wants to contribute to the community and he likes working with a group. “It’s social,” he acknowledges.
While there is a fair amount of physical labor involved in volunteering at the food bank (moving donated items from place to place), there’s also an element of fun when Vantage House volunteers are in the warehouse.
George Laniado, a nonagenarian who is known for his sense of humor and uncanny ability to sound like the cartoon character Donald Duck, started the merriment shortly after volunteers entered the food bank on January 5 by teasing a fellow volunteer that the 470 pounds of food donated that day was really the number of pounds she weighed. She clearly weighed much less than half that number.
The residents finished their volunteer session the same way they started it –with a bit of frolicking.
While gathering for a group picture before leaving, one playfully commented that the volunteers wanted canned goods in the background for “atmosphere.”
Then, Sue Buswell asked her fellow volunteers to “look exhausted” just before their parting picture was taken so they would leave the impression they had worked themselves to the bone.
It was all in jest. Their parting picture showed no exhaustion – just energy and joy about working together and helping their community.
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