Gift of Giving is Her Mission

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Where the Season of Giving is Every Day

by Peggy Bair

Giving Spirit is Every Day of the Year for Volunteers at Leavenworth Community Mission

Iris Arnold is Director of Leavenworth Community Mission Store and Food Pantry in Leavenworth, KS. She is the recipient of the 2020 Athena Award which is given to a woman demonstrating exceptional qualities of leadership in the community. Here, she talks about her vision of giving from the pantry of the mission, where she makes sure that everyone who comes leaves with something to eat. The mission celebrated its 10 Anniversary in 2020. ©2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Iris Arnold bears a patient and kind demeanor, even though thousands of people depend on her nearly every day for something to eat. She manages a dozen or so daily volunteers with such good humor and gratitude, you would never know she was a bit fearful when the truckload of food scheduled to arrive next week, showed up a week early instead, like, as in – yesterday.

Still, she’s happy. Because, this is the mission she chose. This is the mission she built. This is the mission to which she is dedicated. It is the mission of giving. Her passion has inspired a community to rally around her and make that their mission also.

The seed of this mission started about 20 years ago, when Arnold took over the task of a twice-weekly collection of bread formerly done by the minister at her church, Shiloh 7th Day Adventist church. “The minister would go over to a HyVee store over in Missouri and bring it to our church. We would tell people to come and get it – but we would have a lot of bread left over. When he left, I took that [task] over. I started going over there twice a week to get those breads and delivering it along with other foods that they gave.”

“I was the Community Services Director there for years. I started going out and meeting the people and working on the relationships. That was my vision to go and meet the people where the need exactly was. You don’t always get the word out sometimes and people don’t hear about what you’re doing so you’ve got to go out and let them know about it,” Arnold said.

“Some people aren’t comfortable coming to the church, let’s face it. We’re diverse here. We have all kinds of people,” she added.

COVID-19 increased the visibility of people who needed and used food pantries as lines of patrons changed from being hidden indoors to lines of cars outdoors. As the pandemic has persisted, the numbers of those needing help has also increased. These photos are from April, 2020, as Leavenworth Community Mission distributed food at Bob Dougherty Park in Leavenworth, KS. ©2020 Photos by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

After about 10 years of trying different ways of collecting food and distributing it out into the community, Arnold said she and her husband, David Arnold, started looking for a small location where they could have a dedicated pantry. That was 2010.

“God covered my spirit with giving. That’s all I can say. I was born and raised in the church, so it was just instilled within me. Knowing what Jesus did, I’m conditioned to do that,” Arnold said.

Always mindful, always moving, Arnold surveys the main room of the store Dec. 22, 2020 as she manages Leavenworth Community Mission, a 13,000 square foot facility in Leavenworth, KS. The mission has a steady group of 15 volunteers with additional community members that rotate in. The mission includes a thrift store and a food distribution center that serves over 650 Leavenworth County families a month – a number which has doubled since 2019 and is rising, she said.
©2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Leavenworth Community Mission acquired the building from the owners of the present location when those owners became aware that the mission was looking for a building. The gentleman was not able to sell it and the building was just sitting since the DAV had moved out. “He called and said he wanted to donate the building to a not-for-profit organization. We jumped at it,” Arnold said.

In 2019 the roof caved in in one section of the mission where there was a concrete roof. “Again, this community came together to help us raise over $85,000 to help us get this whole roof replaced. It was a nightmare. But, look at the results,” she said.

When a section of the roof of the mission building collapsed in 2019, the vast donations from the community of Leavenworth and 2nd Harvest in St. Joseph – as well as businesses – came together to provide the funding needed to make the $85,000 repair. ©2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

“I walk in here and see the love of the community that came together. We had several donations drives. Taco Bell rallied people to come in and eat and donated. 2nd Harvest Food Bank in St. Joseph created a matching program to help raise some of the funds,” Arnold said.

In addition to community funding, the store and pantry are staffed by dedicated volunteers.

Marcia Payne said that volunteering here is something she has always wanted to do. “I enjoy doing it,” she said. “I just love working with people. I work over at the homeless shelter [Leavenworth Community of Hope]. I go over there, too. I think the Lord blessed me with the space that I’m at right now. I can’t help everybody, I know that. Those that I can? I feel like I must. It’s very humbling, because, you know what? It could be me,” she added.

Andrew Clark, right, laughed together with Arnold, left, Dec 22, 2020 at the Leavenworth Community Mission while preparing to unload a truck with a collection of donated food. Clark said he enjoys volunteering because he said they are good people and he likes supporting the mission there. 2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Arnold said the mission is there to provide for the community without making people feel uncomfortable. “For us here at the mission, what we hear is that ‘You guys are non-judgmental. You don’t look at our cars, what we are driving.’ They are coming here and they obviously need it,” Arnold said, “so we are supplying what they need. And they appreciate that.”

Leavenworth Community Mission is a part of the federal Emergency Food Assistance program. This supplies some of the mission’s food. Other food is purchased through donations and some of the sales from the store. “People don’t realize we have to purchase these foods. Not everything is free,” Arnold explained.

The mission works along side the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) by providing the application but then it is up to the client to follow through after that.

“We have so many different programs. On Tuesdays, the food pantry program is income based. They have to provide a picture ID and proof of Leavenworth County residency. The other programs, like the farmers meat and produce boxes are open to the public.” These foods are generously donated from Leavenworth Farmers Market vendors.

The mission also sponsors three mobile food distributions sites. “Twice a month we are at Bob Dougherty Park and once here at the mission that’s open to the public, no requirements,” she explained.

The Leavenworth Community Mission passed out food to a long line of cars this past April when the pandemic first truly gripped the region. Where the pantry served about 300 families a month, it now serves 650 families – and the list keeps growing. “Some of our neighbors were not aware (of the need in the community) until they saw that [food] line. Because the line was normally inside.” ©2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Arnold said that Leavenworth Community Mission gives away 200,000 pounds of food per month – 30,000 pounds just on a Thursday.

“There’s been a drastic jump in the numbers,” Arnold said of 2020. The mission served 300 families in 2018 and 2019 and they are serving over double that now.

The reason for the increase is: “COVID has wreaked havoc in so many ways. Families that not normally needed a food pantry need our services. Those two months we were shut down here in Leavenworth, people did not have their normal salaries they needed to provide food for their families,” Arnold said. Asked why the numbers have continued to stay high and rising, she said, “The effect is lasting and it doesn’t seem like it is letting up. The numbers are staying steady if not increasing. We think we have almost served everybody – but still there are new applications that are being filled out.”

Arnold said that Leavenworth is a blessed community. “We have volunteers from all walks of life every week. I can’t speak enough of what it takes to run this operation. But it’s solely off the volunteers from the community,” she said.

“For somebody to show up everyday and walk beside me and do this? That speaks volumes to me,” said Arnold.

COVID coming along, causing people to pick up food in the cars instead of in an indoor line has raised awareness in the community of the need people have for food pantry donations.

“We have so many different programs. We have foods we can provide. That eases the fears that they might have that they might not get anything. We send everyone away with something. No one leaves here without food,” Arnold said.

The next project for the mission is to get a walk-in cooler. Right now they have seven freezer and several coolers. Dillons, Walmart and Aldi give food donations and they are also a part of a Feeding America program. Twice a week, they go to some of the local grocers who donate food products. “I make my rounds, Every Monday and Wednesday Dillons – twice a month Walmart. Then the random phone calls in-between, ‘hey we’ve got this come and get it,'” she said.

As for food programs vs donations: “It’s a tricky balance,” Arnold said. “Because of that high demand, the food is depleted pretty quickly. That’s probably my biggest worry – making sure that we have enough food. I want the client to have a nice shopping cart full of food as opposed to some of the emergency foods that they get. Making sure that steady stream of food donations is made available so we can continue to give to our clients.”

For the store itself that has items for sale, COVID has made things more difficult. “We try not to touch the stuff the same day as much. We can handle small amounts at a time. It’s always a good idea to call the store and give us an idea of what they have. We always need men’s clothing. That’s something we never have enough of,” Arnold said.

The store is laid out in neatly with carefully organized sections that look like a retail store. “I worked at JC Penney so I got the retail experience early on,” Arnold explained. “I do want to put out the good stuff. It takes a little bit of extra time for us but it’s worth it.”

Due to COVID-19 and limited storage space, community members wishing to donate store items are encouraged to call to the store ahead of time before bringing in donations so that they may set up a receiving time.

Well over 15 volunteers that do the day to day operations behind the scenes that make it happen. Pop-ups are sometimes unpredictable because they might not know how much is coming or when.

“Like yesterday I got a call about a delivery that was supposed to be here next week – they brought it yesterday. Which means that volunteers just have to show up quickly to help make the distribution. We’re not complaining – all the extra food was wonderful. But it took a lot of extra hands to get all that going,” she said.

Andrew Clark is a volunteer who has been with the mission for eight years. “When I don’t have anything to do, I come over here. Keep from being bored. I like the work these guys do.”

LaVana Foster is one of the ubiquitous volunteers at the mission. Arnold said that Foster is there every day whenever they need anything. ©2020 Photo by Peggy Bair/HeartKC

As Director of the Leavenworth Community Mission, Arnold receives a small salary. “There is very limited funding for something like this. I do this out of the goodness of my heart.” She said the mission is a 501c that is not affiliated with the church.

On Dec. 22, Yolanda Dittemore came into the store and immediately approached Payne, who was manning the cash register. “I’m donating $100,” she said as she handed a check to Payne. “Is Iris here? Just tell her I said ‘hello’ – I was her second grade teacher.”

Yolanda Dittemore described her experience teaching Arnold as a student at Ben Day Elementary School. “She was a beautiful girl. She always brought me apples. And irises in the springtime. She always brought me a little bouquet. She was a very good student. Very, very sweet and gentle – and a steady heart. She’s doing a wonderful job. That’s why I keep coming back.”
©2020 Peggy Bair/HeartKC

Arnold received the 2020 Athena Award on Dec. 15, 2020. “It was a huge surprise. It was so overwhelming that they think of me in that way. I just do the job because I love it. It just comes natural for me so I look beyond the accolades.”

The 2020 Athena Award winner, Iris Arnold recently told the story behind how she came to grow the power of giving into a community gift for the City of Leavenworth, KS. (submitted photo)

Arnold has been married to her husband, David, 32 years. They have been foster parents for 17 years. Their children range in age from 16 to 31 years. David is Assistant Regional Director of Department of Children and Families.

Donations can easily be made to Leavenworth Community Mission Store and Food Pantry by clicking on the red hyperlinks in this story, which leads to the organization’s website.