My wife, Audrey, and I were instrumental in forming the Cahokia Community Basket years ago. She was the first director and I was treasurer. When my wife retired, Kathy Schlemmer was named director. Shortly afterward, she took the financial duties away from me. This spring, I saw Kathy was arrested. I still care about the Basket, so what is the current situation? -- Robert Lourwood, of Columbia
It sounds as though you can sleep easy again. To use a food metaphor, Schlemmer and her board of trustees have been removed from the table, and Christina Walker, her replacement, is cooking with gas.
With new blood on the board, Walker says the Basket is offering clients more and healthier selections in a manner they may not have experienced recently -- with smiles and respect. And to prove it, she would love for you to visit for reasons I'll explain later. But first you might want to have a few tissues handy as you hear her story.
Walker, who is from Cahokia, has zero experience working with food pantries. Her background has been as a housekeeping manager at the Red Roof Inn in Troy and the Hampton Inn in Columbia. But on June 19, 2011, Walker found herself at the Basket, desperate after everything she, her husband and their three young children owned was destroyed in a fire.
For her emergency Red Cross food voucher, the then 28-year-old was given cases of peanut butter and green beans and a couple of other miscellaneous items. Although grateful for any help at that moment, she soon realized the pantry hadn't considered that she didn't have a knife, can opener, pan or plate to prepare and serve them on.
She said she had the same experience when she once brought her disabled mother-in-law to the Basket.
"I felt uncomfortable -- and I wasn't even picking up food for myself," she said. "I just felt little. I told my mother-in-law, 'I don't want to do that anymore.'"
So when Schlemmer was arrested on theft and fraud charges in March, Mayor Gary Cornwell asked Walker if she had skin thick enough to run the pantry. Walker accepted, determined to turn a bad situation around.
"A lot of the food was really bad," she said. "I mean, there was meat in the freezers from 2005. There were canned goods that had expired from 1999."
Making matters worse, the St. Louis Area Foodbank, from which the Basket obtains much of its stock, had been told that the pantry was closing and no additional deliveries were needed. As a result, deliveries were stopped for 30 days, pending an investigation. Moreover, the pantry's financial larder was bare, too.
But Walker took over on Tuesday, March 26, and still kept dishing out what food she could so residents could have at least a somewhat happier Easter five days later. And she hasn't skipped a beat since.
Schlemmer's charges are not related to the Cahokia Community Basket.
But Walker said, "The pantry has had a very, very negative reputation ... I just want to run a better food pantry."
It sounds as though she is on her way. With the help of Aldi's and Schnucks, she says the pantry is offering fresh produce and fruit for the first time in memory along with meat, bread and other bakery goods. The St. Louis Foodbank is once again providing shipments and, just last week, gave the Basket a top score after an inspection. There are personal care items as well -- along with fun little extras like plaques and other knickknacks.
"You can't judge anybody," she said. "That's what I tell my volunteers now. If someone comes through that door and they smell like armpits, you don't judge them. You go upstairs, you grab them a bar of soap, you grab them a stick of deodorant and you ask them if they can use it. We treat everyone with respect."
As a result, more clients are finding their way to 200 W. Third St. for the weekly distributions from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Wednesday and Thursday. This past week, the pantry served 300 families, and Walker has received 500 registration forms. She says she tries to treat each as an individual -- just like the mother of triplets with breast cancer who showed up on a recent Friday. She has been out of work for months and desperate for food. Walker gladly packed an emergency box -- complete with bracelets and toothbrushes for the kids. The woman broke down in tears.
Walker has even bigger plans -- a clean up Cahokia committee, for example, and the purchase of a new truck to obtain more supplies. Until then, Walker would like to talk to you, Mr. Lourwood, to learn more about the Basket's history -- and to return items you might want. Call her at 332-4280. You also can like them on Facebook.
"I really am enjoying it," she said. "I call it God's work. I was baptized a Baptist, but I'm not a church person and I'm not a political person. I'm just me, and I just feel like it's God's work."
Where would you find the shortest and longest verses in the Bible?
Answer to Saturday's trivia: Long before Barack Obama became president, another black man was nominated for the nation's highest office. In 1888, the name of social reformer, writer and statesman Frederick Douglass was entered into consideration at the Republican National Convention. The Kentucky delegation gave him one vote during the fourth round of balloting.
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