For those in need, Harriette Mann is a friend indeed.
The Leesburg Food Bank seems to be a chaotic choreography of food coming and going. In reality, this is a highly organized convergence of generosity and gratitude. A sign reads: “Lord, help us to use our help wisely.” Harriette Mann enters. The words go into action.
This gregarious woman in her mid-80s is working like someone much younger. She lifts overloaded carts, directs volunteers, and designates the direction of food.
“You name it, I do it,” she says, smiling as she leads the way to her office near the free clothing. “People need me. If I sit, I’m not doing my duty to the Lord.”
Harriette’s daughter, Paulette Shambo, pops in, requesting tape.
“How can I explain what it’s like to help here?” Paulette says. “It’s joyful happiness! We’re feeding the sheep, like God told Mom to do.”
Food Bank treasurer, Chester Wojcikiewicz, sits quietly across from Harriette. He goes through receipts, looking for 60 cents. Precision of accounting is imperative. Yet, they don’t account for their salaries, because they aren’t paid. Everyone volunteers.
“That’s the good thing,” Chuck says, laughing. “No one gets fired!”
“We don’t get overtime, either,” Harriette agrees. “Sunday to Wednesday, I’ve put in 36 hours. I commute over an hour, but don’t get tired. When I go home, I work in my yard. TV is the root of evil. I don’t get anything out of it.”
Awards grace the office walls. Harriette’s latest recognition, as Super Senior of the Year, comes from The Florida Council on Aging. But her greatest reward is what clutters her office. Crates of soda, Christmas toys, and boxes of food are stored here until they find their way to a home in need.
“Awards don’t mean much personally,” Harriette says with a shrug. “But I do appreciate them for helping the food bank.”
She quickly rises, proving she’s not one to sit.
“Come with me to the back,” Harriette says, beckoning her visitor. “You’ll see what we do. It makes me glow.”
In the back room, shelves are filled and emptied simultaneously. You might think the flow is constant, but that is misleading.
“We wish you had been here at Thanksgiving,” says volunteer Betty Proctor. “Families with less than four members got chicken legs, not turkeys. This year was skimpy. We did our best.”
“People were grateful, all the same,” Harriette interjects. “Need is increasing because of the economy. People tend to give more at Christmas, but we have a need all year.”
There’s also a need for volunteers and donations. “Money is very important and appreciated,” Harriette explains. “We have to buy many things. We spend $8,000 to $9,000 a month on produce and fresh meats. And we always need basics. There’s a big call for diapers.
“Our entire support is from the community,” she continues. “We’re regulated by the government, but rely solely on private donations. I go to churches and businesses. They come to me. Somehow it works out and we’re all blessed.”
Need is determined by an interview. A Social Security card, driver’s license, or state ID is required. Orders are handled on an individual basis, according to family size and need.
“This organization began 30 years ago on Main Street. We came here on October 31, 1984,” Harriette recollects. “Money from a family estate bought it. My heart tells me I belong here to help people.”
The laughter echoing through the building proves her heart to be true.
Leesburg Food Bank founder Harriette Mann checks the inventory of food with volunteer Paul Bowlen.
“You can have fun here. It’s what you make of it. Life is short,” Harriette says. “If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t have made it after my husband, John, died. I had a wonderful man. He worked at the Agricultural Extension office and retired too soon. He said if he ever sat down too long he would die.”
With tears and a smile, she adds, “In the last 15 minutes of his life, he said he knew Jesus was calling him. He told me not to stop with this mission.”
It is a mission born of Harriette’s life experiences as well.
“I was orphaned at six. I felt neglected. I knew what it felt like not to have what other children have,” Harriette says. “Now I do what I have to do for others.”
Harriette’s prior work complements what she does now. She was employed for 33 years by Jane Adams Grocers in Chicago. She convinced them to make charitable donations there. She was a statistician with Blue Cross Blue Shield. She earned degrees in design and administration. She also volunteered with the YWCA. Her children and family followed suit.
“I have nephews in the ministry in Tennessee and Texas,” she says, beaming. “My other daughter, Denise, runs a food bank at her church. They say I rubbed off on them.”
She hopes it rubs off on more people.
“Each day is what you make of it,” Harriette advises. “I don’t need things other people do. I’m a giving person who appreciates what life is really about.”
WANT TO HELP?
Leesburg Food Bank
1305 Sunshine Avenue