view counter

Stepping Up to the Challenge

The Anne Arundel Food Bank’s new face looks to get the ­non-profit new space
The Anne Arundel County Food Bank’s new executive director Susan Thomas. Last year, the Food Bank handed out more than 260,000 pounds of food, including boxed meal kits.
      No one has ever become poor by giving.
–Anne Frank
 
        Susan Thomas is breaking in some new shoes, walking a path blazed by Food Bank founder Bruce Michalec. 
       Thirteen years ago, Thomas volunteered at the Anne Arundel County Food Bank. Two months into her new position, Michalec ran into health problems. He needed help.
      Eager to give back to the community, Thomas stepped up to learn the ropes from the creator himself. 
      Thomas, though, is no stranger to charitable work.
      She started as a teenager, volunteering as a candy striper at North Arundel Hospital. She also volunteered with Happy Helpers for the Homeless around the holidays. 
      She took notice of the Food Bank and volunteered to answer the phones. One month later, she was offered a job.
       “At the time, the staff consisted of four employees: a driver, bookkeeper, administrative assistant and executive director,” Thomas reminisces. “It was a very close group, and I really liked being part of a team that made a difference in someone’s life.”
       Thomas’s involvement steadily grew, as she added grant writing and bookkeeping to her responsibilities.
      “This is a unique job,” Thomas says. “I knew the harder I worked, the more people we would be able to assist and the more services we would be able to offer.”
       When Michalec retired in January after 30 years of service, he passed the baton to Thomas.
       Her first few months were fraught with troubles. For 14 years, the Anne Arundel County Food Bank worked out of the old Crownsville Hospital kitchen. The sprawling building had plenty of storage and massive freezers to keep perishable food — perfect for a growing pantry. However, their tenancy was uncertain. Then, the roof caved in.
      “We’ve had volunteers come out to patch the roof from time to time,” Thomas says. “But these buildings are very old. We don’t want to spend $100,000 for a new roof.”
       Thomas now has another reason to hold off on the roof repairs: The hospital grounds are for sale. 
      The Chesapeake Bayhawks have their sights set on that property. The Annapolis-based, semi-professional men’s lacrosse team is making moves to turn the grounds into a new stadium with parking and practice fields. Thomas says the Bayhawks are still willing to grandfather the Food Bank into its design plans. But that will take too long.
      “There’s no reason to wait,” Thomas says. “Our goal is to remain on the hospital grounds — but build a whole new space.” 
      They’ll need the room. Last year, the Food Bank handed out more than 260,000 pounds of food. 
      To get the building they need, Thomas is working with the state for a mix of grants and capital bonds. In combination with fundraising, they’ll need government help.
      Thomas hopes that the state will give a 100-year lease on the Crownsville hospital property. She’ll need a senator and delegate to back the plan; who depends on the November elections. Once she’s got backing, she’ll need to meet with Gov. Larry Hogan.
       Of the old building, Stuart Cohen, three-year volunteer truck driver for the Food Bank, says, “we are definitely lucky to have it. But it’s a huge undertaking to maintain. It’s not built for constant truck traffic, either.” 
      Christine Pokorny, a long-time volunteer at the Food Bank, looks forward to keeping up with “growing need in Anne Arundel County. A new space will make us much more effective,” she says.
       Part of growing with the times, Pokorny says, is Thomas herself. “I was really happy when Susan took over,” the volunteer says. “She has a terrific vision for the future, and she wants to try to reach new people in new ways.”
       With a brand new building, Thomas and her team would finally be able to focus on their programs and community — rather than struggling to keep a roof over their heads. 
 
A Remarkable Time
      “This is a really remarkable time,” says Anne Arundel Food Bank Chairman J.J. Fegan. 
       In the nine years Fegan, a local realtor, has led the board, he’s seen demand surge through the Food Bank’s sliding doors.
       “We live in one of the richest counties in one of the wealthiest states in America,” Fegan says. “Too many kids are going to school hungry, and I want to help give back.”
      Michalec felt the same. 
      A champion of charity, Michalec spent more than 30 years building what is now the Anne Arundel County Food Bank and a community around it. 
       The operation began inside a church with Michalec distributing a small federal surplus of food to families in need. Over time, he expanded the Food Bank into a countywide program that gives away more than $1.25 million in food annually. 
       As well as food, people needed resources. Ever responsive, Michalec rose to the need. 
      “Every time I gave away a bed or a wheelchair,” Michalec told Bay Weekly in 2014, “it was like giving people food because they would have been using food money to buy it otherwise.”
      The expanded Anne Arundel County Food and Resource Bank remains the only free place to go for food and other resources like appliances, furniture, medical equipment, nutritional supplements, personal hygiene products and even vehicles.
        Expansion has meant more programs. So far this year, Thomas has given out 150 bicycles to underprivileged kids. 
       Thomas’ team has broadened its Backpack Buddies program. They used to help almost 1,500 students by sending home backpacks full of food for the weekend. Now they assist more than 5,000 kids. 
       Individual donations, mostly through food drives, account for about 20 percent of the quarter-million pounds of food distributed by the bank to individuals, families and food pantries throughout the county. “The remainder,” Thomas says, “we receive through partnerships with local stores and Feeding America vendors.”
       With greater need and the prospect for a new space, more volunteers will be needed. The Food Bank already gets some help from correctional center work programs. Thomas has three to five inmates who help with daily packing and moving. She gets helpers from the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Center and United Way of Central Maryland. But with growing need comes greater responsibility. 
      More volunteers are needed right now, Thomas says, because the Food Bank is “headed into our busy season.” The back-to-school rush begins this hectic period, which grows into Thanksgiving food drives, then holiday gift donations.
      “We’re growing and we’re adapting. We’ve got this new power at our disposal, and we can use it to give more to our community than ever before,” Thomas says of the future.
      Drop off donations Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm at the Food Bank. For large donations or to become a volunteer, call the office: 410-923-4255, 120 Marbury Dr., Crownsville, www.aafoodbank.org.