What This Woman Does When Meeting The Hungry Merits Financial and Voluntary Support
When I met Charolette Tidwell I wondered if she ever sleeps because for most people there wouldn't be enough hours in a day to accomplish what this demure and dauntless woman does every day. At 70 she wears many hats and has more energy than people much less than half her age – an energy fueled by a generosity of spirit and strong desire to make a difference, a characteristic instilled in her by her parents, the nuns where she attended Catholic school, and her church family.
Tidwell doesn’t know the meaning of retirement. After she received her nursing diploma from Sparks Hospital in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where she worked for 30 years and retired, she returned to work at Beverly Enterprises for the next 10 years. In 2000, after a 40 plus year career in nursing, that strong work ethic and eagerness to help other people spurred her on to bigger things – founding and running a non-profit organization she called Antioch for Youth and Family Services that she started using her nursing pension.
Charolette Tidwell’s main focus is feeding the hungry which she does on a daily basis along with a team of volunteers, most of who have been there for years. Antioch is open five days a week and serves over 7000 families at high risk for malnutrition, a problem which inevitably leads to other health issues. “What we have to address in order for people to thrive mentally and physically,” says Tidwell, “are the basic needs and one of the most basic is hunger.” To say she is making a difference would be a bit of an understatement, since Antioch provides approximately 500,000 meals per year to the needy of rural Arkansas which is ranked number one in the nation in food insecurity in the nation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Delivering Food To The Elderly and Disabled
Not only does Antioch serve those who are able to get transportation or walk to the food pantry, another division of the non-profit organization, the Senior Mobile Pantry delivers 45 pounds of food or more each month to 1500 elderly and disabled. Shockingly, according to statistics, 1 out of 4 elderly people don’t have enough to eat and Tidwell helps to bridge this gap. “I have seen older people buying cat food to eat because they couldn’t afford meat,” says Tidwell. “Most people just aren’t aware of the enormity of the problem.”
Antioch also services several low income housing complexes. While some of the occupants are elderly, many of these families are single parents and children who would go hungry if not for the food delivered. I rode with Tidwell and other volunteers on one of her runs. Families lined up to receive vegetables (many of them organic), fruits, meats, breads and canned goods. Some of the moms used their children’s wagons to get food back home because they were carrying small children. Neighbors helped each other and took food to those who were sick or unable to meet the truck, and no one was turned away.
When we arrived back to Antioch there was a woman with two small children waiting. Her friend explained that until that day she had been homeless and while the young woman had just qualified for and gotten housing she had no money for food or Christmas presents and every other facility they had gone to that day had been closed. Without the help of Antioch she and her boys would have gone hungry, but instead Tidwell welcomed her into the building and she left with a huge box of groceries. “Even one child going hungry,” says Tidwell, “is one too many.”
For exactly that reason, four times a year in November and the summer months when children are home, Antioch in the Park, an event held at Martin Luther King Park, distributes 40,000 – 60,000 additional pounds of food each month to those in need. “70% of children attending public school qualify for free or reduced lunches,” say Tidwell, “and without Antioch in the Park some of these children would not have enough to eat during school holidays.”
How She Starts a Day at The Food Pantry
Tidwell’s typical day begins early; she is at the food pantry by 8am when she arrives to organize boxes and bags of food to be distributed. “We empty out most of our stores of food, especially what is fresh, every day.” says Tidwell. That means a large part of her day consists of shopping for food or arranging for donations that arrive from all over the country. In addition, she contacts local businesses and organizations that donate food or pledge funds to purchase food but making ends meet is not always easy. That’s where her professional experiences come in handy.
Nursing has taught her many things, not the least that services and funds are often very limited to the people who need them most, yet her professional background has given her both the leadership ability, and the organizational and technical skills to enable her to subsidize her efforts by writing and applying for grant monies when they are available. And, while her personal and professional contacts also give her a long list of potential donors, applying for funding and grants is time consuming and does not guarantee help.
One might say, for Tidwell, necessity is the mother of invention. When funds and food were limited she came up with a plan. In the spring and summer she supplements those needs through a community garden. But, she doesn’t stop there; Tidwell has entered the public school system to teach students urban gardening and the importance of nutritious, home-grown food and enlist their help. Currently there are six elementary schools and one high school that participate in the community garden. Her philosophy goes back to her roots, “give a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
In addition to daily tasks involved in meeting the demands of the community, there are board meetings and community events. Tidwell has even testified before Congress at the National Commission on Hunger. If you ask anyone in Fort Smith, chances are they know exactly who Tidwell is and more than likely she has somehow touched their life. During our interview she was fielding calls from CEO’s, a dean at the University of Arkansas, and even one from a young man who just needed to talk and considers her a second mother.
Despite her fame – she’s been interviewed by every major broadcast company, Steve Harvey, DF Hugely, National Public Radio (NPR), The Reel , People magazine and many others, and, has been featured in the National Geographic documentary “Hunger” – Tidwell is humble and unassuming. She grew up poor, the sixth of 10 children. “My father, Nathanial Jones was a chef and my mother Leodell was a domestic worker. We had a one-acre garden and chickens, and that garden fed not only my family but whoever was in need,” says a smiling Tidwell, “We were poor, but no one ever went hungry or without a kind word.”
Holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas are special times for Antioch. Each family in need gets everything they need for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, and for Christmas there is a city wide Christmas dinner especially for seniors at a local church. Antioch organizes nursing home visits during holidays with singing, cards, and gifts. “We also go to the nursing homes on Valentine’s Day, Mother’s and Father’s day so the residents get a little extra tender loving care,“ explains Tidwell. “For some, we may be the only visitors they get during the entire year.”
Not only does Tidwell spend a significant amount of her vast energy on alleviating the food deficits of individuals and families, and seeing to the needs of the elderly, she devotes her time and efforts, through the court system and Comprehensive Juvenile Services, toward helping kids who need guidance. “These are good kids who just need a little hope,” says Tidwell, “and may not be getting it at home or in school.”
Tidwell received her master’s degree from the University of Arkansas and is a firm believer that education leads to opportunity. That philosophy prompted Tidwell to start numerous programs for students which teach leadership, writing, production, and improve communication skills. Each year students participate in the American Legion Competition which allows them to compete for cash prizes and scholarships. She partners with the National Museum and Young Actors Guild (YAG) and helped organize acting workshops financed by First Presbyterian Church in Fort Smith, which allow area youth to participate at no cost. These workshops are currently available to students at 14 area schools and help students become members of YAG.
In the spring, Antioch organizes and hosts an annual health, wellness, and nutrition fair - “It’s a Family Affair” which due to the size of the event is held on the campuses of Darby and Tilles schools. The event encourages health awareness, physical fitness, and education. Vendors are invited and there is a soccer tournament on the same day. One of the highlights of the event is a visiting celebrity junior chef that demonstrates preparation of healthy food. 72 community organizations are represented at this event. Doctors and nurses provide physical exams and bloodwork free of charge. The week of the 2016 event the shingles vaccine will be given free of charge, an expense that is not covered by Medicare and at the out of pocket cost of $236, most of the participants could not otherwise afford.
Antioch is housed in a humble brick building on north 11th street in Fort Smith, a building which Tidwell says the organization has outgrown. She hopes that by the grace of God and the goodness of others she will acquire the necessary funds to move to a larger building that will enable the non-profit to better meet the needs of the community.
Help The Poor
In this day and age when CEO’s of many non-profit organizations have come under fire for receiving exorbitant salaries, Tidwell is unique. This remarkable woman does not pay herself a salary, and uses over half her monthly pension to help others. While she sometimes struggles to meet operating costs such as maintenance on the trucks used to deliver food, she is always optimistic that the needs of the many will be provided, one reason she chose the name “Antioch”, the ancient city where the word “Christian” was first used, for her ministry.
In December, Charolette Tidwell was honored for her service and named the 2015 Arkansan of the Year by Arkansas Life magazine.
Those interested in making a donation to Antioch can do so using the federal ID number 27-5069797. Your donations are 100% tax deductible.
If interested in volunteering you can contact director Charolette Tidwell via the Antioch Facebook page. Everyone is welcome and help is very much appreciated.