Early on a crisp February morning, volunteers were gathered at Rutherford Memorial United Methodist Church lining up bags of food and supplies for the Corryton Hospitality Food Pantry. It was T-minus one hour from cars arriving to pick up the donated goods.
At the helm of the operation was Bob Martin, a member of the church with his wife, Kathy, since 1962. Martin has worked with the pantry for 23 of its roughly 25 years of existence.
Loading up in the parking lot, with no one having to exit their vehicle, was a new approach put in place in 2020 to keep distributions going during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Honestly, I don’t know why we never did it this way to begin with,” Martin said with a laugh. Though weather can sometimes interfere, he added “this really is much easier for everyone.”
The comments about Martin’s leadership from various volunteers range from “the man is an institution” to “he keeps this running like a well-oiled machine.” It’s likely his long career at Corryton Elementary School, from which he retired as principal in 2001, has a lot to do with that.
Soft-spoken with an easy smile, he’d much rather talk about the work the pantry does than draw any attention to himself. And while much beloved by his adopted community, he is not a native son.
Martin is originally from Philadelphia (TN not PA) and graduated from Loudon County High School in 1957. After graduating from UT, he moved to Corryton in the early ’60s to teach at the elementary school before eventually becoming principal. His wife was a teacher there as well.
Now in his early 80s, he devotes considerable time to the pantry. But he is quick to point out the contributions of others, and that the entire effort is community driven.
“We store everything at Rutherford and it is the base for the pantry, but it is not the only church involved,” Martin said, adding that roughly 90% of donations are provided by Second Harvest Food Bank, noting the last two deliveries were 15-20,000 pounds of food.
“Funding for the purchase of food comes from individuals, businesses, churches, etc.,” he said. “We have a large number of donors. Many area churches send groups of volunteers to assist the pantry in sorting, bagging and distributing the food. And, lots of individuals just like to be a part of the pantry scene.”
Martin also said participation in the pantry is a great way for students to earn volunteer hours. The whole production starts days before pick-up, with people needed to unload trucks, organize storage, then bag and box prior to go-time.
Regular distributions take place on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month, from 8:30 to noon. However, adjustments on those date are made around Thanksgiving and depending on when Christmas falls each year. As expected, those are the busiest times for the pantry.
“Thanksgiving and Christmas bring a large number of those folks needing assistance,” he said. “This past year we had about 300 families each time, and they received around 70 pounds of food including a generous supply of meat and vegetable items. We have families from many different ZIP codes and really have no geographic boundaries regarding who we serve.”
Martin said the devotion to service is key to keeping the pantry going.
“Looking around, most of those here right now, talking, working together, didn’t know each other three years ago,” he said. “It’s a good thing for our community. It’s a social thing, it gets people out of the house with the opportunity to do something for others.”
Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for KnoxTNToday.com.