It’s all about Neighbors Helping Neighbors

Started with a dream and some key “do-ers,” the modest Pine Run neighborhood helps its own with free food distributions, a handy helper service, delivered meals and a social services resource center.

Darrell Olivier, the coordinator of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, right, and volunteer James Strait, left, look over meat to be given away to people who need it the most during the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food giveaway in the clubhouse at Pine Run on State Road 200 in Ocala on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

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Posted August 31, 2023 | By Belea T. Keeney

It began with a dream. Literally. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Marion County in 2020 and dragged on through 2021, Pine Run resident Darrell Olivier saw isolation and fear decimating his neighborhood during that time. 

“The situation with the pandemic,” Olivier said, “these older people lost hope. We had a lot of shut-ins, people weren’t going out. They got used to that. It was a mess in our little community then.”

Olivier woke one night in the summer of 2021 with a compelling thought: Feed your neighbors.

“I think we’re supposed to feed people here in Pine Run,” Nancy Olivier, Darrell’s wife, said when she heard of her husband’s vision “to feed our community.”

Darrell Olivier agreed it was time to take positive steps, “and we knew that this (food pantry) would get people out,” he said.

And so began the Neighbors Helping Neighbors (NHN) programs. 

Pine Run is a gated 55+ community of modest single-story homes, mostly on small, well-kept lots, many with simple carports and screened Florida rooms. The residents are retirees, often from northern workforces: postal workers, truck drivers, retired military and teachers. The community is on Southwest State Road 200, not far from the Super Walmart that anchors that shopping area. Homes there were built from 1981-89, and most are less than 1,200 square feet. It has about 880 homes in total and an estimated 1,250 residents. 

Darrell Olivier is an energetic fellow, full of positive energy and enthusiasm. His dark hair and tidy demeanor belie his age of 70; he appears to be much younger. In addition to starting, organizing and implementing the NHN programs, he’s also head of the Community Watch program in Pine Run and had a background in logistics, warehouses and operations from his working life. His contacts in the community led him to Betty Jones, another Pine Run resident, who had experience in managing food pantries and distribution. Jones also helps with the Community Watch program and had extensive contacts in and out of Pine Run. 

Having been involved with the Christian Home Area Ministry Partners, (CHAMP), Jones was familiar with the logistics of food distribution, pantries and bread drops. She started out in 2014 delivering a van load of breads and pastries to an area church. She also noted the widows in those neighborhoods, seeing their needs and ended up feeding 14-20 households a month. That program evolved into a bigger mobile food pantry buying from an area food bank, which got donations from area grocery stores.

Free food pantry monthly for Pine Run 

Nancy Olivier is quick to acknowledge, “It’s not a stigma thing here. People who need the food come and no one is pointed out as being needy.” 

Betty Jones, the director of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, speaks to people during the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food giveaway in the clubhouse at Pine Run on State Road 200 in Ocala on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

No application or formal paperwork is required as the group wants the food to be accessible. This contrasts with other area programs that require income verification and qualification, and often a paper or computer-based application, which can be hurdles for an elderly person seeking help. 

Jones prefers setting up a “shopping environment” at the food pantry instead of handing out premade boxes of food. “People will use what they like and throw out what they don’t,” she said. Letting people choose for themselves, they found, leads to better results. 

The team is also careful about what foods are offered.

Jones pointed out, “If you give people food that they don’t know how to use or eat or it’s foreign to them, they won’t eat it. It’s waste.” 

“All our food is taken,” Nancy Olivier said. “Well, almost all.” The group laughed and admitted at the July giveaway, there were six packages of turkey necks that weren’t taken and a couple jars of pig’s feet left over. 

More than 3,000 pounds of food were given out in June. 

Because Pine Run is gated, the pantry is restricted to its residents. There are other area facilities, churches and agencies that distribute food around Marion County, but the organizers of the Pine Run initiative wanted to keep their focus locally.

“We decided to keep it in the community,” Jones said. “Even if we could just provide them with meats, that would save them a lot of money.” 

Residents even shop for their homebound neighbors; the group encourages that wholeheartedly. Again, neighbors helping neighbors.

“If you feed them, they will come. That’s where it all starts,” Darrell Olivier said. “Once the food pantry was locked down, we knew we could expand this whole vision. To create a clearinghouse for people who need services. ”

 Food pantry expanded into other programs

In addition to the monthly food distribution, Olivier and his team expanded to meet other needs of the community. The primary needs, he said, were food along with household help, and access to social services such as Medicare information, help with paying utility bills, needing a hospital bed at home after a hospital discharge, and the like. 

“For people coming out of the hospital, and they need meals for a couple of weeks, that kind of thing,” Nancy Olivier said of their Karing Kitchen program, which delivers hot meals to homebound residents. 

Darrell Oliver said, “Everything kind of spawned from the food. The Karing Kitchen is the equivalent to Meals on Wheels within Pine Run.” 

To help people stay in their homes, the NHN team also developed the Honey Doers, a team of handy residents who are able to do small household chores for their neighbors. 

Honey Doers restrict their work to small tasks, nothing that requires a license or deep technical skills. This type of assistance helps residents stay in their homes safely. The program is careful not to over-reach and negatively impact any residents or area businesses that do more intensive household work as a business

“Our people who help out with minor handyman services don’t compete with the small businesses in the area that do it [for a living],” Olivier assured. Things like “changing a light bulb, fixing a lock, small things like that. We created the Honey Doers who do light-duty tasks to help out neighbors.” 

Another element of the overall NHN program is the Sunshine Lady team. These are neighborhood crafters who make custom greeting cards and send them to residents who need a get well, good wishes or sympathy card. 

Each segment of the program—the food pantry, social services coordinator, Honey Doers, Sunshine Lady and Karing Kitchen—has a designated coordinator. These people act as “the hub of the various spokes of the helping wheel,” Darrell Olivier phrased it. The team uses phone contacts only as many residents don’t have or use computers to conduct business so it’s a more personal contact system, which the team likes. 

Volunteer Nancy Remus was enthused about the concept and eagerly volunteered to assist. She sees how much it helps her neighbors.

Jean Shewell, left, and Marty Willingham, right, organize food to be given away to people who need it the most during the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food giveaway in the clubhouse at Pine Run on State Road 200 in Ocala on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

“The elderly have needs and expenses,” she said. “You can go through your savings quickly with a house, car and sickness. In a challenging time, electric, insurance, any added expense at our age is a hardship. That retirement money doesn’t go up. And some older people can’t work at all. The food pantry tides them over. It’s a joy to see their happy faces.” 

Remus also gives credit to the hours of volunteer hard work and organization that the program requires. She said shoppers don’t typically see the huge amount of labor involved with buying the food and loading the truck at the food bank, transporting it to Pine Run, unloading it into the clubhouse onto tables and then organized by category. Plus, the logistics of managing the shoppers and volunteers. The Pine Run NHN rents a box truck each month to transport the food.

“The men especially work hard,” Remus said. “Lifting at our age is a big ask!”

Jones said the funding comes from CHAMP, which is a 501c3 non-profit ministry that allows purchases from the food banks. It’s a local foundation that supports efforts to help those in need. 

Food, education and camaraderie

The NHN program makes use of the wait time as residents line up for the food. 

“While they’re sitting there,“ Jones said, “it’s a time to educate them on all different things: health issues, growing moringa trees, different vendors to offer their services.” Vendors are required to contribute to the community when they attend; one vendor gave residents a gift card for a turkey or ham last year. 

The food distribution has also become a social occasion, giving residents a chance to chat and visit with their neighbors along with getting information about other area resources. 

The first food giveaway was in November 2021. Darrell Olivier has been delighted to see a positive change in the neighborhood since then. 

“The attitude has changed from, ‘I’ll hide in my room and never come out until the coroner comes to get me,’ to this vibrant community,” he said, adding, “We’re about paying it forward. If someone needs help, this infrastructure lets us help them.”

After 20 months of the distribution, the Pine Run team has given away more than 60,000 pounds of food and over 20,000 pounds so far in 2023. Usually about 120 -140 residents attend each month. The group has seen a small downward trend in attendance this year that they think due to travel opening up again after COVID-19 restrictions have eased. And, as in many retiree neighborhoods, fewer residents are in Pine Run during the summer months. 

A model for success

Their work is scalable, Darrell Olivier says and is enthused about other communities doing the same programs. “It can be done by regular people,” he said.

Marion Senior Services (MSS) Outreach Director Glenda Thomas was delighted and impressed with what the Pine Run programs have accomplished. Of Olivier, Thomas says, “He’s just a superhero. Just incredible. It’s a tremendous vision that he had. We recognized that what he is doing is so necessary to the community. As an agency, we do a lot, but we can’t do it all. So, Darrell is able to supplement what our agency does.”

Having its own program in place keeps Pine Run residents from “being on our waiting list,” Thomas said, adding that they’re getting the help they need now. 

Marion Senior Services staff met with the social services team at Pine Run and gave them guidance on topics like Medicare and other insurance queries and helping residents with utility costs. A supply of the MSS “red book” was given to the Pine Run organizers. The book has loads of contact information for all types of social services in the county. 

Thomas was so impressed with Darrell’s team that she hopes to host an educational presentation so other communities can learn about the programs. 

“We want to ignite that kind of idea,” she said. “I was so fascinated what I saw in the efficiency and amount of food they were able to distribute. And the attitude of the people there. The amount of dignity in the process. No one is made to feel bad about having a need. 

“I think what Darrell does needs to be in a book somewhere, a manual, so it can be duplicated,”

Thomas said with enthusiasm. “Every community should have a Darrell!”

Darrell Olivier he said he’d “love to be a mentor” to organizers in other communities and help them set up their own programs. 

Food distribution, fellowship and education

At the Aug. 22 food distribution event, four pallets of food items were bought from the food bank. Dozens of tables were set up with all kinds of grocery items: frozen packaged chicken, hamburger, bacon and other meats; canned goods; over five dozen cartons of eggs; vegetables and fruits; and six  tables of breads along with pastry items. Additionally, several tables held free clothing and household items, including larger items like a microwave oven, vertical blinds and a loveseat. The team also helps coordinate donations from residents who have passed away, and their pantry items are often given to the group. 

Volunteers organize food on tables to be given away to people who need it the most during the Neighbors Helping Neighbors food giveaway in the clubhouse at Pine Run on State Road 200 in Ocala on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

More than 40 volunteers worked at the August giveaway, and a total of 108 residents were served and did their shopping. Typically, Darrell Olivier reported, closer to 140 residents are served but the August event was rescheduled from earlier in the month, and summer is typically a slower time for many 55+ communities. 

Shoppers filled coolers and shopping bags with their choice of items. Several shoppers picked up items for homebound residents, and volunteers (there’s that word again), assisted with delivering the groceries. 

Senior Box program offered

The Senior Box program from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was introduced at the August event. The boxes typically contain at least two cans of meat, along with canned vegetables, pasta and other food items to supplement a diet.

Shearah English from Bread of the Mighty food bank in Gainesville talked about the free food boxes. 

“We’re excited to partner with the USDA to bring free food. Due to inflation and other issues, the USDA is providing food to fulfill nutritional needs for seniors, which comes from a USDA warehouse in New York,” English said.

The program is income-based, but English reminded the shoppers, “It doesn’t affect any other government benefits like Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.” 

Pine Run residents can apply at the monthly food distribution and others can apply through MSS.

With inflation crunching everyone’s wallets, English was enthused about the help they can offer. “We would love for seniors to participate,” English said.

The NHN programs are formalizing what was once informal and unstructured process 40-50 years ago. The close-knit neighborhoods of yesteryear often included this type of neighborly help, with a bag of sugar borrowed here and a hand with an oil change given there. Nearly two years into the program, with November being the two-year anniversary of their first food pantry, Olivier and his core team remain enthused and positive about the changes it has brought to the community.

“Everyone can do something,” Darrell Olivier said. “Find a need and fill it. Anyone can do this!”

Darrell is seeing his dream of feeding his community come true.

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