Every once in a while we encounter an everyday hero. They don’t make headline news for doing something like pulling a child out of a burning building. Everyday heroes are just that – they do something almost every day to help someone in need.
Cathy Bird, Executive Director of Food Link, is one of my everyday heroes. For the past 24 years Cathy has led Food Link. It started as a small agency that rescued food that grocery stores who were throwing it away, and gave it to families in our community who were going hungry. In just a couple of years she increased the amount of food they were able to provide from 30,000 pounds a year to over 250,000 pounds. That meant far fewer kids were going to bed hungry at night, and significantly fewer parents were in despair because they were unable to provide for their children.
Cathy exemplifies someone who has grit, that combination of passion and perseverance that enables success. Her passion evolved in high school when she joined a group of classmates who decided they would gather food for needy families for Thanksgiving. She tells the story of her father, who was always helping neighbors, driving her to the family’s house who would be receiving the food basket she had assembled. The mother invited them into her humble home so dad could carry the over laden basket into the kitchen.
Cathy spotted a girl about her age hiding behind a door, a look of shame on her face that she can recall vividly even today. Cathy wondered how many other kids in her school weren’t getting enough to eat, and were too embarrassed to tell anyone. That was the beginning of her awareness of the everyday tragedies that were occurring to families in her neighborhood:
- A man down the street who worked for the railroad suffered a debilitating injury on the job, and was suddenly unable to support his family.
- Her best friend got leukemia, and the medical expenses were overwhelming for her family.
These misfortunes prompted Cathy to get involved in community programs sponsored by her church, the school board and a troubled youth organization. She discovered that it felt fantastic to make a difference in someone’s life. Having a sense of purpose and feeling her life has meaning have been driving forces in Cathy’s life ever since.
When Cathy had a family of her own, she brought awareness to her children that they could help make their community a caring place to live. Her kids began to notice that some of their friends didn’t have birthday parties. So Cathy and her children would host the party at their house, or bring a birthday cake to school for all of the class to share. Those children grew up to be a big part of helping their moms make Food Link a success.
But success hasn’t come easy. Perseverance has been an essential ingredient in the struggle to serve the burgeoning number of families who live in poverty right here in our community. Young single mothers became a focus for Food Link as it became apparent to Cathy that there were many new moms who didn’t have the means to provide diapers.
In typical fashion, Cathy approached the local grocery store managers and ask what they did with damaged boxes of diapers. Return them to the manufacturer, she was told. Can we figure out how to document the damage so Food Link have them instead of paying to ship them back to the plant in Florida? You’ll have to talk to corporate headquarters, who told her she’d have to speak to the manufacturer.
When Cathy called the diaper manufacturer with her request to keep damaged boxes of diapers here in Maryland, she was told no because they were given to a national charity. The national charity told Cathy that Food Link would have to become an affiliate member, which meant paying thousands of dollars as well as the shipping costs to get the boxes back to Maryland.
But Cathy still didn’t give up. She approached the Junior League, and got them to provide a 3-year grant to start an emergency baby pantry. Today there are 8 baby pantries throughout Maryland.
But next month there will be zero. Nor will Food Link be giving food to any more struggling families. They are closing their doors for good on Friday, May 26th.
There aren’t many Cathy Bird’s in the world. She made our community a better place.