“Good morning everybody!” It’s the warm greeting that punctuates the activity in the New Samaritan Baptist Church hall again and again as people flow in.
It’s a chilly Thursday around 10 AM in northeast DC, and a fleet of volunteers are setting up long tables with salad greens, kale, potatoes, onions, milk, cheese, and other staples. Cheerful chatter fills the space, and at the center of the activity – saying hello, checking progress, smiling at everyone – is Denise Clyburn. She greets with hugs – handshakes are “not her thing”.
With the help of many diligent assistants, Denise runs the church’s weekly fresh food distribution, as well as its pantry across the street.
Soon, people are getting called up to fill their bags with produce and groceries. “If you’re over 90, you go first!” calls out Henry Thomas, one of the program’s regular volunteers. More than a few people are in this category, and after them flow people of all ages.
“I just want to meet people’s needs,” says Clyburn, when asked about what has motivated her to do this work as a volunteer for the past many years. “We have all kinds of people that come here for food. Young, old. Lots of families.” She references a rambunctious little girl who is here with her mother. “I’ve known her since she was an infant.”
“I want to help families with growing kids bridge that monthly gap between what they have and what they need. Same for our seniors who come. This food helps do that, and it makes my heart happy when people say what the food means to them.”
Low wages and unemployment are the biggest challenge that most of the guests face, says Clyburn, noting that hunger is almost never obvious. In the case of seniors, Clyburn shares, fixed incomes don’t stretch far enough. “I’ve seen the need first hand over the years,” she says.
Later, in a house across the street, Denise tours us through the church’s Agape Pantry. “It’s my baby”, says Clyburn, as she proudly points out children’s clothing and school supplies; men’s ties; women’s shoes; and the pantry that now takes up the whole of the basement, with low sodium vegetables on shelves and a freezer full of turkeys.
“We’ve been able to grow all of this because of the Capital Area Food Bank,” she added. “We used to have all of this on just one floor, but with the abundance we receive from the food bank, we moved the clothes upstairs and expanded the food.”
Clyburn says she dreams of taking over the whole house for the pantry. While she wishes the need didn’t exist, she’s also glad to be able to help those who are struggling. “We’ve built a real community here,” she says. “It’s based on dignity and respect”.
For Clyburn, that speaks to the heart of the food distribution, and the pantry. “Humanity is what matters,” she says. “That’s why we do this”.