Miss Bessie gets her steady drive from caring

Published May 29, 2007

When we walked into the huge warehouse, I was immediately struck by the immensity of the task ahead of us.

Boxes of food were stacked ceiling high, most of it - 113,000 pounds to be exact - from the recent Pasco County Letter Carriers Food drive.

Our job for the next four hours was to sort and pack boxes for the Suncoast Harvest Food Bank in Land O'Lakes.

We - a group of St. Petersburg Times and Publix supermarket employees - were among the scores of volunteers who last week fanned out across Pasco County for the United Way Day of Caring.

If this annual exercise in civic sweatiness was supposed to open our eyes to the daily possibilities of making a difference, it worked.

After four hours, I got my white T-shirt smudged; my lower back ached; I sneezed from the dust in the warehouse. I'll get over that. But I won't forget meeting Bessie "Ma" Samuels, a 41/2-foot ball of energy and organization. Her inspiration was enough to dull the pain of an aching back.

The Suncoast Harvest Food Bank supplies pantries in Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties.

The food bank and adjoining thrift store are run by a small staff. But it's mostly unpaid help that puts a dent in sorting and packaging the food: students seeking community service hours to impress college admission deans, men and women serving court-ordered community service and folks like me seeking to earn brownie points with the boss.

In our Day of Caring group, the guys were assigned to lift and stack the sorted boxes. The women sorted. Rice, mashed potatoes and Hamburger Helper are sides.

It was Miss Bessie's job to make sure our sorters got it right.

Bessie has been a regular since 1989, the year after her husband died. Three times she retired from helping out, but each time found a reason to return.

She lives alone with her Quaker parrot, Georgie. But sorting cans at the food bank means she has people to talk to.

"It gets lonesome with just me and the bird," she said.

Three mornings a week, you'll find Miss Bessie in the middle aisle with a cart, sorting through the canned goods. And that's where we met her.

She kept everyone in line in her gentle way. Whenever a volunteer had a question, she always knew the right answer. As soon as something spilled, she was right there to clean it up.

She had a Depression-era appreciation for food. She didn't like tossing anything out. You had to make sure the bag was open or something was visibly wrong with it before you could toss it out. For those of us who were older, it reminded us of the save-everything thriftiness of our parents.

Miss Bessie once had her hips replaced, but that doesn't seem to affect her stamina. She kept working even when we, younger folks, needed a break.

But Miss Bessie got as much out of us as anyone could. After four hours, our group had sorted and stacked 12 pallets of boxes, containing more than 20, 000 pounds of staples.

That's a lot of caring. I'm sure Miss Bessie would love for us to come back again soon.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at 813 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@sptimes.com.