They made America, built America, and changed America. Yet they stood in line in Rock Hill to get a handout.
All were at least 65 years old, and many were far older. They were retired textile workers, school cafeteria workers, domestics. Construction workers and factory production assembly line workers. Their legs bowed from work. They were ladies and men, senior citizens, black and white – in line to get fresh produce donated by Food Lion through Second Harvest Food Bank.
The bags were filled with cabbages and corn, cucumbers, lettuce and squash.
This was not 1934 during the Great Depression. It was Thursday, in 2014, in America, one of the world’s richest nations. And still, the older people who made America so great, so powerful, who worked in mills so their kids could go to school to get jobs pressing computer keys and drive sporty cars had to hold out bags for enough to eat.
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The senior centers, the charities and the nonprofits are all that separate these people from hunger.
A woman in line said she was 77 years old and was born in 1937. And, she said, “Here I am, having to get somebody to give me beans.”
She was asked her name but said she was too embarrassed to give it.
Rock Hill, York County, South Carolina and America are the ones who should be embarrassed. Every one of us.
Politicians debate whether school kids should have lettuce or French fries for school lunch while the kids’ great-grandparents decide whether to spend what is left from Social Security checks on blood pressure medication or a loaf of bread and a package of pressed ham. Or go to a food bank and beg.
More than 3,000 elderly people in York and area counties are so poor, so far under the federal poverty guidelines, that the sound they hear is a mine collapse of hunger, the choice every day is eat or take the medications that keep them alive.
“People having to make that choice, and we serve some of them, is just horrible,” said Wendy Duda, executive director of the York County Council on Aging.
The reality around the Charlotte region that Second Harvest serves is that at least 45,000 seniors, and likely far more, don’t get nearly enough to eat to be close to healthy, said Kay Carter, executive director of Second Harvest. The Council on Aging’s senior centers in Rock Hill, York, Chester, and Fort Mill deliver home meals to thousands of those people five days a week. For some, that meal is all they get.
Other people, many of them seniors, have to go to food banks to try to make it through each month.
On Friday morning, the day after the giveaway at Second Harvest, the line for food started at 6:45 a.m at People Attempting to Help, known as PATH, in York. A sign said the door opened at 9 a.m. The sign said the first 25 people would be helped. The line was full an hour before the door opened. A third of the people there were in their 60s.
The food at PATH comes from donations, and the rest from Second Harvest Food Bank. Outside was Willie Lytle, 67, hands thick from a lifetime of work. He has lived for two months, in America, in a house without electricity because he has no money for it. He is asked how he bathes, brushes his teeth, flushes the toilet.
“Haul water,” Lytle said.
In the waiting room was Debra Walker, in her sixth decade and fighting cardiopulmonary disease. She has worked in her life at a potato chip factory and as a security guard and waitress. Her son fell in a construction accident and can’t work. Her take home pay from a part-time job last week was $159.
“How do you eat on $159 a week?” Walker asked.
Nobody had an answer.
The night before going to PATH, Walker and her son ate leftover noodles for supper. She was asked what they had with the noodles.
“Water,” she said.
At places such as PATH, Clover Area Assistance Center, Fort Mill Care Center, Hope Inc., Pilgrims’ Inn in Rock Hill, and Turning Point in Chester, the hunger faced by all people, especially seniors, is eased. Volunteers work at at each place. Nobody gets paid, and the food is all donated.
Among the many volunteers at PATH is the Rev. Neill McKay from Beth Shiloh Presbyterian Church.
“Nobody helps the hungry, these seniors, more than Robert,” McKay said.
In the storeroom, three teens from York Comprehensive High School volunteered, as they do two days a week, along with their special education teaching assistant, Jamell Gaines. Ray Ruiz, Zyion Burris, and the 18-year-old volunteer of five years, Robert Makar.
Makar said something that needed to be said in York County: “Nobody should ever be hungry.” Makar cares so much for the people he helps that he even volunteers on days he doesn’t come with the school group.
Gaines said volunteering teaches his students about helping others.
“Everyone has something to offer to help somebody else,” Gaines said.
An older lady came through for her food. Makar took the cart stacked by other volunteers and pushed it outside like he was serving the Queen of England. He held the door for the lady. He held his head high. He asked the lady if she needed any help with her bags.
He loaded the car, and said to a man inside, “You have a good day, sir.”
The older people thanked Makar for helping them eat in America.