Charolette Tidwell’s plans for retirement aren't like many others: The retired 69-year-old nurse is using her pension to run a food pantry she started and is working there – unpaid – six days a week.
“The community that I was raised in did this. My mom did it. The folks at the church did it. The nuns at the school that I went to elementary school did it,” she said. “We were mentored into this kind of work. Service was something that I've always been involved in."
Tidwell feeds 7,000 people a month in her hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas – handing out 500,000 meals a year through her Antioch for Youth and Family group. The town has suffered from the closures of factories, layoffs at the chicken factory, and low wages, and Tidwell said she sees the elderly and families showing up for help.
“I was raised in poverty and I understand all the issues that go along with not having enough money,” she said.
She started the charity in 2000 after retiring and learning that seniors in her community were eating cat and dog food – a cheap way to get protein.
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“Allowing the generation that raised us to go to the point that they're eating cat food and dog food, I can't imagine that,” she said. “I think it’s a forgotten population.”
People come and go on a recent food giveaway day, with some bringing wagons to carry home the donations. Others just come on bicycles. They scoop up vegetables, fruit and meat.
“We thank the Lord for this lady here, Mrs. Tidwell, for helping us out in a time of need, said Sherri Warren, a client of the food pantry.
Tidwell said she saves enough from her pension to get by, economizing on utility bills and figuring out the best deals on food to maximize what she can give. For more than 13 years, most of the group’s funding came from Tidwell and a few small donations; now that’s been supplemented by some small grants.
“I think if they have a persistence or purpose to come here, I have the obligation to serve them,” Tidwell said. “And to serve them in a compassionate, respectful way.”
There is a sense of community among the clients, the unpaid volunteers and Tidwell.
“Many of our people are repeaters. They tell someone, and then those persons become repeaters. So it's important for us to be not just a giver of food, but a giver of hope,” she said.
Tidwell hopes to pass on her work to the next generation, and there is already one contender: a boy named Timmy who comes to volunteer with his mom.
“It makes me feel good because I get to help people,” he said.
“I want it to continue, if anything happens to me, Tidwell said of her work. “I just believe it will happen.”