Church, Counselor Offer Helping Hand to Neighbors

Economic times have negatively affected many hard working people across the country and Clarke County is no exception. Men and women who have been used to working hard and pulling their own weight are, for the first time perhaps, finding that they have cashed their last unemployment check with no job in sight and no money in their checking account.

Even here in Clarke County there are families struggling, not just to make ends meet, but to figure out where their next meal is coming from. Family budget cuts are difficult for everyone involved but can take a particularly severe toll on children’s daily nutrition as parents are forced to make spending decisions between fresh food and necessities like gasoline.

Janine Davis (l) and Tina Johnston deliver food to hungry families in Clarke County, Virginia - Photo Edward Leonard

But thanks to Clarke County Public Schools Guidance Counselor Tina Johnston, the congregation of Crum’s United Methodist Church and donations from Wegmans Grocery store in Leesburg, thirteen Clarke County families, totaling 65 men, women and children, will not have to go to sleep hungry, at least for the next few days.

A Serendipitous Beginning

When Tina Johnston finished her educational specialist degree (Ed.S.) in School Counseling and Clinical Mental Health Counseling at James Madison University earlier this year, the Clarke County Public Schools counselor knew that one of the problems that she wanted to tackle was hunger and nutrition.

“I wanted to see if there was something that we could do to help struggling families in the school system,” Johnston said.

With 18% of Clarke County’s students qualifying for either “free” or “reduced price” school meals, Johnston envisioned that a “Backpack Buddy” program would make a big difference in the lives of students whose families were struggling financially.

“Backpack Buddy” programs provide “kid friendly” foods to schoolchildren from low-income families on weekends when they don’t receive free or reduced-price school lunches and school breakfasts.

With hunger reduction squarely in her sights, Johnston began planning how to implement her hunger reduction solutions during the coming fall when students would return to school.

And that’s when things became interesting…

During the same week that Johnston began discussing her Backpack Buddy initiative with other CCPS staff, Dr. Stephen Geyer, Principal at Berryville Primary School, received an e-mail message from Janine Davis, a parent of two elementary school students and a member of Clarke County’s Crums United Methodist Church.

Clarke County elementary school students (l-r) Alexa Davis, Avery Thompson and Taylor Davis help load the food bank delivery - Photo Edward Leonard

Davis’s e-mail to Geyer detailed a successful, “Backpack Buddy” program that her husband, Andrew, had just implemented in Loudoun County where he is Principal at Rolling Ridge Elementary School in Sterling. The e-mail message also described a recent decision by the Crums Church congregation to take on the mission of fighting local hunger.

Tina Johnston and Janine Davis scheduled a meeting and quickly found that they shared a passion for fighting hunger. The pair decided to join forces and began discussing the best way to quickly make an impact in the lives of their struggling neighbors.

Offering a Helping Hand

Not wanting to wait until the beginning of the next school year, still weeks away, Johnston and Davis moved forward immediately.

As a school counselor, Johnston identified thirteen families that were in immediate need of food assistance. (To preserve anonymity for the families, Johnston personally delivers the food contributions using her own time and vehicle.)

Davis, with the help of Crums Church congregation members Larry and Sarah Thompson and Michelle Nowland developed a network for finding food to share with the families.

So far, their efforts have produced extraordinary results.

“All of this food came from Wegmans,” Janine Davis says motioning toward bread loaves, canned goods, frozen sandwiches, pizzas, and other foods. “The response is a bit overwhelming.”

“Our cup runneth over” smiles congregation member Sarah Thompson.

Larry Thompson said that many area supermarkets discard large amounts of food everyday due to short expiration dates. “We’re hoping to develop a network to help the supermarkets distribute the food so that it isn’t wasted,” Thompson said.

Monday’s food distribution delivery more than filled a truck provided by Johnston.

Johnston, Davis, both Thompsons, and Nowland loaded box after box of food for delivery that afternoon. Tina Johnston’s daughter, Julia, a junior at Clarke County High School, assisted the adults as did elementary schoolers Avery Thompson, Taylor, and Alexa Davis.

The younger Davis sister could barely contain her enthusiasm while helping load food that she knew was going to benefit other children.

“It’s cool because we’re sharing!” Alexa beamed.

Volunteers load food for delivery (l-r) Larry Thompson, Sarah Thompson, Janine Davis, Julia Johnston - Photo Edward Leonard

The Birth of a Food Bank

Johnston said that Monday was the food bank’s second delivery after an initial offering in early July. While the early success of the project is gratifying, both Johnston and Davis hope to expand the program into a weekly delivery of more widely varied foods.

“We’d like to include salad and garden donations if we can,” Johnston said. “Canned goods are nice but we also want to offer produce, rice, and pasta.”

Janine Davis hopes to enlist additional volunteers, both from within the Crums Church congregation and the greater Clarke County community.

“We’re going to need more volunteers to drive, freezer storage, and trucks for deliveries. There’s a lot that needs to happen.” Davis said.

Johnston said that, so far, both of her food deliveries have been warmly and gratefully received by the needy families.

“I drove away from one home crying because is felt so good reaching out to these folks,” Johnston reflected. “I’m really moved by what our community has been able to do in such a short amount of time.”

Other Area Food Bank Initiatives

Clarke County has several community-sponsored food assistance initiatives that welcome the donation of food, time, money, or food delivery transportation. If you would like to assist in the battle against hunger in Clarke County please consider assisting one of the following community outreach efforts:

Crums Church Food Bank

Food Donations/Volunteers: Janine Davis – 540.955.1852

If you have a child in Clarke County Public Schools and you are in need of food, please call: Tina Johnston 955-6120.

FISH Pantry

The FISH Pantry is a service provided in cooperation with Clarke County Social Services. The pantry itself is located in a small room within the Social Services building located at 311 East Main Street, Berryville.

Individuals, churches and other organizations within the county donate food, which is delivered to Social Services. FISH is responsible for sorting, checking expiration dates and organizing the shelves. FISH also purchases the perishable foods including bread and frozen meats (there are two freezers in the pantry). Social services staff distributes the food to qualifying families who come in and request assistance.

If you can help or want more information, contact FISH at 540.955.1823 or contact FISH online at

St. Luke’s Baptist Church

There will be a meeting for anyone interested in helping with a once-a-month soup kitchen offering at St. Luke’s Baptist Church starting in September.

Meeting Date: Tuesday, August 3

Place:  St. Luke’s dining area

Time: 6:00 pm

All are welcome to discuss finances, volunteers, etc.

For more information contact Mrs. Thomasine Maxwell – 540.955-5263

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  1. It’s good to see churches doing good deeds, not just fattening the pockets of the Pastor (KBC)