PORCH Is All about People

Story by Rachel Mills

Martha Rigling was about to turn 80, when a friend, Ginny D’ercole, brought her along five years ago to volunteer at PORCH.  The PORCH folks thought that was marvelous, and threw her a birthday party.

Martha and her husband Richard, a school superintendent, had retired to Chapel Hill because, like many, they were looking for a warmer climate, and Florida, where they first thought to go, “just didn’t seem right,” Martha remembers.  When her daughter, already living and working hereabouts, suggested they come to Chapel Hill, they found it perfect. “We love it here,” she says.  

It wasn’t long before she began to look around for opportunities to meet people.  A book group, a monthly neighborhood gathering for “empty nesters”, and other activities keep her in good company, but PORCH is, she insists, the best of all.  

“I can’t wait for that second Monday and Wednesday each month. The work PORCH does is amazing,” she says, “and so well run.  It’s like everyone just comes in and knows where to be and what to do, and they do it.” 

“Plus,” she adds, “I meet so many nice people each time…this month, I met a new volunteer and now…” she grins, “I’ve met you, too!”

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Great Partnerships Start Here…

Story written by Rachel Mills

Symoni Patel is one of PORCH’s most enthusiastic volunteers, and also one of its most active ones.  She will tell you with a big smile, “I like to help!”

symoni patel at PORCH.jpg

Symoni came to PORCH with her The Arc of the Triangle guide about two years ago through a volunteer outreach program that The Arc of the Triangle supports.  She had already acquired some important skills while she worked at the Meadowmont Harris Teeter bagging, helping to carry, and shelving.  At each PORCH sort, you can find her ably unpacking and sorting donated bags that come in from neighborhood porches like yours, so that the third shift can begin with full stacks of non-perishables, which are bagged up again, ready to be distributed to the schools and organizations PORCH supports.  Watching Symoni, you have no doubt that she knows the whole drill.

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Waiting At the Curb, A Cheerful Welcome to Porch

Steve Mackey and “Brook” Brookhart followed pretty much the same path to PORCH.  Steve begins, “When my wife, Patty Smith, and I moved here in 2013 from Birmingham, she began looking for volunteer opportunities and found PORCH.  She became coordinator for our neighborhood, Colony Woods, and I came along to see what it was about and stayed to help.”  Steve, a retired rehabilitation counselor for the Veterans Administration, and Patty had spent a year or so working for Meals on Wheels, picking up and bagging bread and bagel donations from a bakery, so they were seasoned food sorters when they joined us.

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Rosie Caldwell, Rogers Road Community Center

At the Rogers Road Community Center, the Sheriff’s Office was setting up its tent, unwinding some electrical equipment, and putting out a popcorn machine in the concrete drive in front. The Center sits square in the midst of three or four small connected roads of brick ranches, singlewides, and, along the farthest street, a row of newer cottages.  Together they have been known, for who knows how many decades, as the Rogers Road Neighborhood.  Around them, here and there a forgotten animal shed lingers under overgrown trees, a reminder of the neighborhood’s roots.  It’s a close-knit community of people who care for one another.  That’s where the Rogers Road Community Center comes in, the place where care is central to everybody, and that’s where Rosie Caldwell, who directs it, is central to it all.

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Each month at the PORCH sort, we who can volunteer to show up at the gathering and distributions sites around the city to handle the many tasks of helping get food to people in need.  Most have been volunteering faithfully for PORCH for a long time; many are stalwart PORCH collectors in their neighborhoods.  New volunteers are welcomed each time, brought in by the enthusiasm of their neighbors.  Behind the scenes, as well, are volunteers we don’t often see, except in the summer months when school is out and young people from all over the area come to the sorts.

Did you know that there is a recognized school activity for high school students called PORCH Club?  Though it has a faculty sponsor, it’s organized by students, planned and coordinated by students, and full of the energy that the young have when there is a social problem to be solved.  PORCH is lucky to have them.

Norman Xie, a rising senior at East Chapel Hill High School, thought it would be interesting to see what PORCH was about.  He’d worked some for another nutrition program in Carrboro, so he already had an idea of the need for supporting families that aren’t as fortunate.  He grew up in Chapel Hill, and bikes everywhere.  Still, PORCH has managed to teach him a lot about its different communities and how he can connect with them.  “You know?” he says, “here I feel like I’m helping people [he hesitates a minute finding the right words]… and that, that gives meaning to what I’m doing.”  Clearly, Norman is a young man who knows inherently what matters.

Meanwhile, he’s applying for colleges (he is hoping to find himself at UNC-Chapel Hill, studying biology for medical school later on) and going on with his own activities, like ultimate Frisbee.  “I play the piano, too,” he mentions, explaining that he is not only taking lessons but playing in venues once in a while.  There isn’t yet a PORCH club at his school, so he wants to get one started this year.

Enter Sydney Runkle, from Chapel Hill High School, who began her PORCH activities as a freshman (she’s a rising junior now).  “I was looking for volunteer opportunities,” she says, especially in what she calls “human security”.  Wow.  That’s quite an insightful way of expressing what a good community affords all its people:  a safe place to live, food for nourishment, education, work, shared resources.  PORCH appeared quickly in her view. 

As a sophomore, she became the coordinator of PORCH Club at CHHS.  There are about 50 students involved, she counts, and about 20 consistent participants, which she’s hoping this year to raise to the whole 50.  Sydney, you can tell, has the kind of organization skills in her blood that the founders of PORCH run in theirs.  The club gets together every few weeks for a lunchtime meeting, where she introduces PORCH, runs through logistics for the next events, gathers ideas, and signs up new members.  Activities are as much fun as they are helpful:  between sort months, they make cheerful holiday cards to tuck into the bags of nonperishable food, bake cookies to distribute to kids in the schools…. “It meant a lot to me to be able to distribute them myself this time”…and participate in the snack drive for children. 

This year, she has plans to get the club started on letter-writing campaigns to city, state and national official urging them to recognize the issues of hunger and security, locally and nationally.

So, what is the appeal of PORCH club to students?  Sydney thinks that helping hunger relief among the people who live around you is the main draw.  She recruits volunteers from friends, parents, and friends of friends.  Some students join for volunteer credits, but very soon they see the importance of what they are doing.  It’s not difficult to see that Sydney is a leader in the best sense of the word.  She never forgets the needs of the people she is working for, and she sees the possibilities in others to make solutions possible.  Those values are evident when she speaks about what motivates her.

PORCH, she says, has taught her about community.  “Those days I get to help PORCH are my favorite times of the month.  Everyone is so welcoming, everyone works together so well.  Most of all, it’s eye-opening…enlightening…to know there is a real way you can help people.”

It’s a message both Norman and Sydney hope their elders among us will spread to their children and grandchildren, by word and example.  It’s already obvious, though, that PORCH’s future is in good hands.

                                                                                                Rachel Victoria Mills

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Kerry Sherrill

Imagine yourself at the grocery, with dinner, lunches and breakfasts to plan for the week.  You push the cart along the aisles, but none of the foods you need seem to be available. Instead, there is an odd assortment you don’t quite know how to adapt to the way your family eats.  You need healthy fresh ingredients…fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk…but of these there are none or few.  You wish that the grocery had thought more about the way its neighbors lived before it stocked its shelves.  You wish they had simply asked what you needed, instead of presuming it.

Kerry Sherrill, the social worker at Frank Porter Graham Bilingue School, and before that at Carrboro Elementary…“A great community-minded place!” she enthuses… thinks that helping to feed people ought not to be so one-sided.  The needs she sees not only in the families of children at the school, but also as a long-time activist for PORCH, don’t reflect what’s on the shelves at many food pantries in our community.  “If we are really going to help people in a culturally competent way,” she says frankly, “that is, a way that gives them dignity and recognizes who they really are as people, we have to understand how they live so that we can truly meet those needs.  We have to ask them.”

So, it’s no surprise that Kerry believes that, of all the programs she has worked with, PORCH is the best at reaching out to their clients personally and culturally.  According to Susan Romaine, Kerry has herself to thank for leading the program (and trying to convince other organizations) to recognize the ways that different communities think of nutrition.  Kerry first met Susan and Debbie Horwitz, two of PORCH’s founders, while they were parents at the school.  Kerry began to think about what food really meant to her clients, and when PORCH got started, helped them understand the necessity of including fresh foods.  Kerry, for her part, celebrates Susan, Debbie and Christine for their enthusiasm in taking on that important task.

It all comes down to mutual understanding, they agreed.  They first explored how the Karen community, refugees from Burma, lived. One of their leaders, Khukhu Juelah, invited them to tour her kitchen to talk about food; they even took pictures of their meals.  When you come to know who you are feeding, it’s easier to put aside general (and often mistaken) assumptions, Kerry emphasizes. The women continued with Latino families and refugees from Syria and the Congo.  The fresh food component allows families to cook in the healthy and diverse ways their cultures have taught them.  While Kerry was explaining that, this writer was thinking:  what if, as we filled our bags each month, we, too, could picture the kinds of families who would use those ingredients?

PORCH, Kerry says, gives both volunteers and recipients a way of coming together.  “The thing I love most about volunteering at the pickup sites,” she says, smiling broadly, “is seeing those families come in, greeting and engaging us and each other in continuing conversations week by week.  It’s a very social atmosphere!”  Kerry laughs, “And isn’t volunteering all about the people we meet?”

She often sees the eagerness with which PORCH recipients step up to help in return.  One group of parents, whose children were helped by a grant to go on a school trip, volunteered a Saturday to repaint the school buildings in cheerful colors.  Another came to landscape and trim.  The facelifts cheered everyone.  “Children born in refugee camps grow into teenagers who, like their parents, also learn to give back,” she says.  Even reluctant teens can be cajoled to help carry bags, push carts, and translate.  Having a useful place in a community is essential to all of us, Kerry reminds us, and sharing food can be a vehicle to that…if we show up to the plate, too.

                                                                           Rachel Victoria Mills, for PORCH

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Daily Tar Heel: The other side of summer

Later this week, school lets out for over 12,000 students in Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Most of these students eagerly await leisurely summers dotted with s’mores, sprinklers, and sidewalk chalk. But, for the nearly 3,500 CHCCS students receiving free or reduced price meals, there can be a very different anticipation to summer.

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Faces of PORCH Anna and Scott Falk

Anna and Scott Falk know a good thing when they hear about it… several things, in fact.  In May, their friend and neighbor, Kathryn Chan, called to say that PORCH was in immediate need of help at our monthly sort and delivery, so on the Falks came to lend a hand (or four).  Retired lawyers who last August moved down from West Hartford, Connecticut (“What?” Anna says, surprised, “you’ve heard of it?”), they looked south to Chapel Hill and Carrboro and settled in the one place that knew what they needed…neighbors close by, sidewalks and few steps to walk for coffee and a bite.  Meadowmont suited them and their twin girls, now students at Culbreth Middle School, just right.

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BBQ Fundraiser March 30

The UNC Kenan-Flagler business school student body is hosting a BBQ fundraiser for PORCH on Saturday March 30th. Please join us at The Morgan (5205 Barbee Chapel Rd, Chapel Hill) and bring $10 for ALL YOU CAN EAT BBQ AND OPEN BAR. 100% of the proceeds raised will go directly to PORCH.

What: BBQ Fundraiser for PORCH

Menu: Texas Brisket, Beer, Wine and more!

When: Saturday March 30th, 2019 from 12:30 – 2:00PM

Where: The Morgan Pavilion (5205 Barbee Chapel Rd, Chapel Hill)

What to bring: $10 (cash or venmo) and a Texas sized appetite

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