Combating Chatham’s hunger keeps Smith on the job

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Editors Note: This is part three of a four-part February series in conjunction with “Chatham Loves Seniors,” a month-long celebration designed to value Chatham County’s older adults and to fight back against ageism.

SILER CITY — Diane Smith wheels around in her office chair at the West Chatham Food Pantry and summons a detailed Excel spreadsheet.

In 2021 alone, the 69-year-old Smith oversaw an organization that distributed anywhere from 4.5 to 8.5 tons of food per month to Chatham County residents in need.

That’s tons. With a “T.”

“It’s pretty impressive how much food we give out,” Smith said.

A carefree retirement was never a consideration for Smith, who combined the waning years of her career as a medical transcriptionist with serving as one of the first volunteers when the pantry first opened its doors in 2007.

“I just knew friends that were trying to put this together, trying to get this started,” she said. “I just felt the need to be able to hopefully give back to the community and help clients who were so food insufficient. It’s such a huge, huge problem.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the need for the pantry. Last year, a total of 1,945 families were served, including 6,302 individuals.

Clients, should they qualify and reside in Chatham County, can come once every two weeks. Many take full advantage of the window, and non-Chatham residents are often assisted on an emergency basis before being advised of resources closer to their respective areas.

“I’ve had a lot tell me, ‘I’m so sorry I had to come,’” Smith said. “‘I haven’t been coming because there are other people who need it more than I do.’ Well, you need to come. Because that’s what we’re here for. Never would I have ever thought that this country would be in this type of situation with prices the way they are, and difficulty getting food to eat. You think of that happening in third-world countries.”

Having gained firsthand knowledge of the pantry’s operations from the ground floor for the better part of a decade, Smith was approached “five or six years ago” about taking the reins as executive director. After a bit of conversation, she accepted and stepped into the demanding role of guiding a nonprofit.

“I was willing to give it a try,” she said. “It’s a lot, and it’s easier now because I have more knowledge of what the internal processes are like, and the grant process.”

Like the 23 volunteers that come help staff the center three days a week — all have varying schedules — Smith doesn’t accept a salary for her efforts as executive director. It’s a diverse range of volunteers, from truck drivers to teachers, stay-at-home moms and retired lab technicians.

“I don’t want to get paid,” Smith assured. “I really don’t. It doesn’t matter. I’m fine where I’m at financially, and I don’t need that extra income. We’d rather just give our time.”

Smith said that she plans on contributing to the pantry as long as she’s able — whether in her leadership role or as a volunteer.

“It’s just gratifying to know that you’re helping these people who are so restricted in their finances to be able to purchase food,” Smith said. “With the price of food going up like it is, they can’t afford it. We’re seeing that it’s trickling down to us. We’re having problems ordering food, getting food that we want to be able to give to our clients. Then in addition, trying to provide healthy food. We don’t actually provide meals; we try to supplement what clients already have at home.”

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