CHERRY VALLEY, AR (KAIT) - Tuesday mornings around 10 a.m. in Cherry Valley finds just a few cars and trucks are on Highway 49 leading into town. But, there's quite a crowd gathered just off that road and in the parking lot of the Cherry Valley Food Pantry.
People walk up to the large warehouse-style building and stand in line. Many have been there before and make this stop part of their weekly routine.
Annie Mae Robinson's son brings her to get much-needed food and supplies from the pantry.
"I don't get no food stamps, so this is nice," Robinson said. Her thin, elderly frame is covered with a coat and she smiles recounting her appreciation for the food pantry.
"I get everything I need. They have meat and stuff like that. Canned goods," Robinson said. "I love this. You can't find nothing no better than this."
Just inside the door and working to fill boxes of food for families in need is Joan Ball, January's Gr8 Acts of Kindness recipient. She has no idea that her family, friends, and First Community Bank personnel have gathered to surprise her.
A food pantry volunteer sees the entourage coming and opens a side door, as if on cue. The surprise party pours inside as Ball clasp her hands to her face. Her eyes amazed and she looks bewildered.
"For all that you've done for this community," I said to Ball. "This group has gathered to recognize you today."
"When I saw my family walk in, it really kind of scared me for a minute," Ball said. "Then I saw ya'll and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh!'"
"There's nothing more noble than feeding the hungry," I said to Ball. "Isaiah 58:10 says, "Feed the hungry, and help those who are afflicted and your light shines through the darkness.. You've done that," I said.
Ball wipes tears from her eyes.
"That's why you are the next winner in the Gr8 Acts of Kindness," I said.
Everyone gathered inside the Cherry Valley Food Pantry begins to applaud.
With the award comes cash.
"One hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, I count out Ball's cash reward in her hand.
"Four hundred eight dollars from First Community Bank and KAIT."
"We appreciate all that you do for this community," Allen Williams, community president of First Community Bank said.
"This pantry helps everybody," Denice Gillon said while waiting her turn to collect a bag of food.
She has driven from Parkin.
"I am so glad she got it," Gillon said of Ball's being named the Gr8 Acts of Kindness winner.
"So she prayed about this," Ann Moore, Ball's sister, said. "Having served on the school board, she knew children were going hungry and we needed to help them. She said, 'You know, Lord… you need to send someone to help them.'"
Ball soon realized that someone was her.
"I called my pastor that night and said, 'I need to meet you in the office in the morning. I've got something I need to discuss with you,' Ball said. "And he said, 'Okay, I'll be there' and that was the start of it (the pantry)."
Nine years later, the food pantry is a fine-tuned operation.
"We gave out 190,000 pounds of food last year," Ball said.
But the first years were tough.
"We started out in a little metal building that was actually the parent center of a school building that was no longer in use," Ball said. "We got in there and water leaked from the ceiling when it rained and then the next day, it oozed up from the floor and the electrical system wouldn't hold all that we were putting there. We'd have to unplug a freezer to plug up a refrigerator, or to plug up scales to weigh something. We were always going back and forth plugging and unplugging."
Ball wrote grants, held fundraisers and finally realized a dream in a 5,000-square-foot building that was built specifically for the food pantry at the site where it is housed today. The facility is large enough to hold a waiting room area for people needing assistance and a vast amount of warehouse space containing refrigeration units for produce and meat.
"Joan has told stories where someone comes in and they're needing help with their electric bill or they're needing a new something. She works to find that," Teresa Fuller said.
A local educator, Fuller nominated Ball for the Gr8 Acts of Kindness. "They've done personal care items for people—when they get them in. It's not just the food pantry. But, it gives her an opportunity to interact with people and see that needs are met. And if she can't find someone who can."
A shuttered IGA grocery store makes it difficult to get food. Some people even walk for miles. "How far did you walk today?" I asked a gentleman seated and waiting his turn for food.
"Seven miles today," William Buchanan answered. He said most days he walks for nine miles from his home in Bay Village. Once he gets his food, someone oftentimes gives him a ride back home. In the summer, he rides a bicycle over to the food pantry.
Ball has hugs for him and many others she recognizes. They are familiar to her and each carries a story of struggle.
"You know, some of those people are my neighbors. And before I started this, I had no idea," Ball said. "I didn't know that there was a need there. You know, it just really amazes me."
Ball plans to use her Gr8 Acts of Kindness money to buy even more supplies for the food pantry.
"We get probably 90% of our food from the Food Bank up in Jonesboro," Ball said. And with the help of volunteers, work gets done and people are fed.
"If I'd have known it was going to turn into something this big, I would have said, 'I can't do it.' It just would have been too overwhelming," Ball said. "But, one step at a time, and we turned it into this."
Ball is already working on another fundraiser coming up for Valentine's Day night.
"We're going to have a big steak dinner with all the fix'ins. It's gonna be steak, baked potato, salad and all that," Ball said. "The ladies in the community are going to make desserts. We've got wonderful cooks around here."
The Valentine's dinner will take place at the Cherry Valley Baptist Fellowship Center. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the cost is $20 per person.