More than 1,000 people lined up Friday morning at the fairgrounds in Callahan to receive free food, clothing, and supplies offered to Nassau County residents struggling to get back on their feet after Hurricane Irma.
According to Commissioner George Spicer, who received a tally from Representative Cord Byrd’s office, a key organizer, 1,078 individuals and 314 families received aid. He said there were 45 volunteers.
“There’s a lot of need in this county and the need is growing,” said Mr. Spicer. “For a lot of people the hurricane was devastating. But there’s also many people that need help to feed their family week in and week out.”
Kim Marrs, 55, stood at the end of the queue with her sister Cheryl Sillman, 58, each gripping the handle of a trolley with a blue crate to hold their groceries. They live in Yulee, lost power for five days and need to restock the fridge.
“All the food spoiled and had to be thrown out,” said Ms. Sillman.
Hilliard resident Eleanor Maze, 76, stood with her 4-year-old grandson Jacob next to a trolley stacked with several cardboard boxes of food. The top box held several bags of lettuce and was at risk of toppling over each time the boy tried to push the cart toward the road. Ms. Maze said they were waiting for his mother to bring the car.
“We have to feed the people in my house and in her house. And my sister who is 81 is here. She arrived on the Amtrak train (from Hollywood, Florida),” she said. “She told me she was coming before the storm and I said, ‘Lord, please no.’”
Margaret Kronz, 55, who recently completed treatment for lung cancer, collected vegetables, water, and canned goods. She lives with her daughter in Callahan and plans to share the food with her family.
“I also got a whole chicken,” she said. “I live on social security and I’m having to use all of my extra money to buy food. Whatever they’ve given me is going to help. I so want to thank everyone.”
The distribution was organized by Farm Share, a non-profit food bank that has since 1991 supplied churches, soup kitchens, shelters, and community centers with produce, milk, bread, meats, and canned goods free of charge. The local office is in Jacksonville.
The effort was supported by the Buford Grove Baptist Church in Hilliard, State Senator Aaron Bean, Representative Cord Byrd, and County Commissioner George Spicer, who was spotted around 9:30 a.m. wheeling groceries to a car for a woman who had boxes of supplies ready to go home.
Sandra Cummings, 55, of Bryceville received water, milk, and canned goods. “I’m giving away most of it,” she said. “My son needs it.”
Volunteer Mike Alexander, who walked with Ms. Cummings, pushed her boxes of food on a cart along the dirt driveway in front of the fairgrounds crowded with cars and trucks. He said many people planned to distribute food to family and friends in need.
“I’ve heard that a lot today,” he said. “Not everyone can be here so someone in the family comes to the distribution.”
There were many seniors and young families seeking aid. But many people, who appeared to be in their prime working years, also waited for food in a distribution effort held during business hours.
“It opens your eyes to other problems,” said Mr. Alexander. “Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a bubble.”
Cathy Bellamy, a registered nurse from Orlando who looked to be in her early 40s, said she recently moved back to Callahan to live with her father after closing her botex injection business Angel Face Florida.
“It was heartbreaking. The product is really expensive and we went big with computers and phone lines. Probably too big,” she said. “We were spending $10,000 a month on product and paying a plastic surgeon.”
Ms. Bellamy said she returned to the family home less than a month ago to restart her life and also help her father. She said the storm took down many trees in the yard and the power was out for five days.
“For me, this was going to be a reboot and now I’m dealing with all of the clean-up and we need food,” she said.
Buford Church Youth Pastor Mike Pruitte drove an industrial mover to transport large packages of supplies from a moving truck into the building. On the hot sunny morning, he wiped his brow and then drove past the long line of people who would walk through the door after registering with a volunteer taking names.
“Please move back!” he yelled. “Please move back!”
“That’s my dad,” said Bekah Pruitte, 26, who flipped through pages on her clipboard at a reporter’s request for a tally on the number of people she had registered. “I’ve been here 20 minutes and filled two pages with names.”
“I know the woman I took over for filled 10 pages,” she said. “And there other people working here at the door so it’s a lot of people.”
Ms. Pruitte collected information on the number of people in the family household as well as benefits received, such as Medicaid. She lives in Fernandina Beach and works as a server at the Ritz-Carlton where her boyfriend runs the ecotourism program. While her father asked her to volunteer, she said she’s happy to help.
“There are a lot of people in need especially after the hurricane so I’m glad I can serve,” she said.
Inside, a volunteer in throwback (and super cool) eyeglasses offered people friendly pats on the shoulder and hugs for emotional support. “Let us know what we can do,” she said. “You okay?”
Volunteers, many in Farm Share t-shirts, circled the room or worked behind folding tables positioned around the perimeter and stacked with food. Almond milk was available.
The Red Cross offered buckets of cleaning supplies and there were racks of free clothes in the back of the cavernous multi-purpose space donated by River Road Baptist Church in Hilliard. A limited supply of dog and cat food caused a scramble and people were told to take only one bag.
Emma Holt directed the local effort for Farm Share.
“It’s important to do this because so many people were affected by the hurricane,” she said. “We’ve been to 11 counties. Two yesterday. We’ll keep going until someone says stop.”