85-Year-Old Volunteer Showing Her Mettle

Spirit of Abilene wants to feature local people who weave ministry into their daily lives, even in the midst of a pandemic. If you, or someone you know, fits this description, please send information to Loretta Fulton, editor@spiritofabilene.com

By LORETTA FULTON

At 85, and with a pandemic raging that is especially threatening to older people, Shirley Stephenson could be excused from her duties as a volunteer at the United Methodist Service Center & Food Pantry.

But Stephenson is a fixture at the center, located in the old Mack Eplen’s drive-in on North First Street. So, she continues to report for duty every Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning to help make sure people waiting in line get the food and hygiene items they need. In fact, Ricky Carroll, executive director of the center, isn’t sure how the place could run without Stephenson.

“Everybody thinks she runs this place,” Carroll said.

Shirley Stephenson prepares baskets of food at the UMC Service Center & Food Pantry. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Both Stephenson and Carroll are members of Elmwood West UMC, one of several local United Methodist congregations that support the center. Stephenson is friends with Jean Butler, former longtime executive director of the center. Butler recruited Stephenson to volunteer about 12 years ago.

“I blame her,” Stephenson said.

The center and other nonprofits have lost volunteers since the pandemic hit with full force in the spring. Many older volunteers are staying home until the coronavirus is no longer a threat. Stephenson understands their choice, and isn’t critical of anyone who choses to stay away, but she is determined to continue volunteering as long as she can–properly attired in a colorful mask.

For now, and until at least the end of August, clients are staying in their cars and volunteers are bringing groceries to them. In July, the center served 508 families, representing 1,047 individuals. Volunteer nurses checked 70 people in July.

What keeps Stephenson and other volunteers coming back are experiences like one that happened recently at the center. A man came to pick up food and hygience items. He later came back, with tears in his eyes.

“I just wanted to thank you for the food you shared with me,” he said.

Stephenson has been a member of Elmwood West UMC since 1964. Her husband died in 1992. Stephenson has known Carroll, the executive director, since he was 12. That relationship makes for a fun back-and-forth banter between the two at the service center.

Shirley Stephenson pushes loaded grocery carts to the door of the UMC Service Center & Food Pantry to be distributed to clients waiting in their cars. Photo by Loretta Fulton

“Between her and her husband,” Carroll said, “they taught me everything I know.”

Stephenson is aware of the shortage of volunteers. Each shift at the center requires a minumum of four volunteers, which makes Stephenson’s reliability invaluable.

“You know what happens now,” she said. “He’ll double my salary.”

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