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Food pantry windfall “a win” for all of southeast Ohio

The Heisman Trophy awards can be an opportunity for the winning football player to thank everyone from his coaches to his parents, but Athens native Joe Burrow set a new standard Sunday.

Burrow, a quarterback with Louisiana State University, used the occasion to give a heartfelt speech about hunger and poverty in Athens County.

“Coming from southeast Ohio, it’s a very impoverished area and the poverty rate is almost two times the national average,” Burrow said in his speech, which was transcribed in a Facebook post. “There’s so many people there that don’t have a lot and I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. You guys can be up here too.”

An Athens resident, journalist Will Drabold, saw an opportunity for the community and set up a donation site on Facebook for the Athens County Food Pantry.

The site was established on the weekend. By Wednesday afternoon it had received $439,198 and the amount was increasing steadily.

David Keller, development coordinator for the Southeast Ohio Food Bank, said the sudden national attention that southeast Ohio received from the campaign is a significant opportunity. He said the Athens Food Pantry didn’t see it coming.

“It was absolutely a surprise. The initial goal was $1,000, and within a day it was over $50,000,” Keller said. “I don’t think anybody expected it to catch fire like this, and that highlights the need and how many people are passionate about this.”

The Southeast Ohio Food Bank is an umbrella organization for a large group of food pantries in the region. Keller noted that the donations are entirely at the disposal of the Athens food pantry, but the entire region stands to benefit from the national attention focused on it now.

“It’s a huge win for hunger relief in southeast Ohio, with all those people around the country looking at southeast Ohio, Joe Burrow putting a spotlight on the issue,” Keller said. “Everybody is still in the shock phase, this is an awesome responsibility. The Athens pantry will be able to do incredible things with this money.”

Keller noted that the pantry volunteers are a very small group.

“They could all fit in one small office,” he said.

Beyond the cash windfall, he said, the food bank and other organizations can work to keep the momentum going.

“As much as we can, we want to keep this attention, use it as a platform to speak about what southeast Ohio is trying to work against, keep the conversation moving, do what we can with this opportunity,” he said. “My goal is to stay in close communication with the Athens food pantry and work on a communication plan to maximize this potential.”

Keller said the Athens pantry has not indicated a plan for the donations.

“A lot of people are asking them how they mean to spend it, but they are not hammering out any details, they’re being smart about this and taking their time to figure out how to maximize it. And that pantry being able to provide more resources for its clients will help people in all the other areas. It’s a huge win for all of us,” he said. “Talk about a Christmas miracle …”

Sherry Hill, director of the Marietta Community Food Pantry, said Burrow’s speech was an extraordinary act.

“For a young man to raise awareness about food insecurity, especially in southeastern Ohio, I think that’s amazing. People are not aware of the number of families and individuals, many of whom are the working poor,” she said. “For Joe to have the awareness and sensitivity to call that into the public eye is great. People don’t realize how prevalent food insecurity is.”

At the Athens County Food Pantry, the volunteer board of directors was still dealing with the shock Wednesday afternoon.

“None of us expected this,” said board president Karin Bright. “We’re like, whoa, wow … we feel so incredibly honored. People from all over the country have been calling us, making donations.”

Bright said that Burrow’s speech simply had a national resonance.

“In this area, we all know there is hunger, and when Joe talked about kids not having enough food, it just hit people’s hearts,” she said.

Bright said she believes that the opportunities represented by the donations can go further than providing food for the hungry.

“We want to make sure we use this in a very wise way, and we’re in the process of setting up a group of advisors,” she said. “We want to be sure we honor the people who did this. The possibilities it opens up are more food, serving more people, devising other ways to wipe out food insecurity, this is a monumental opportunity not just for Athens County but all of southeast Ohio.”

Bringing attention to the plight of the working poor in the region is another benefit of Burrow’s speech and the national prominence it held.

“I am an Athens native, my family has been here for many generations,” she said. “I’ve always felt southeast Ohio gets marginalized. This is an opportunity to advocate for our region and the people here. We need jobs, we need transportation, we’ve been left behind, there are no real industries in Athens, Meigs, Vinton counties. People work hard, but they are the working poor, barely making it. It’s a much bigger problem than just giving people food when they need it.”

Burrow, she said, put all those concerns in a few brief sentences that touched people.

“It has resonated in way nobody would have thought possible,” she said. In football terms, she said, “he just completed the most important pass of his life, and he might not have known he even threw the ball. What a job his family has done, he remembers where he came from, and we are just filled with gratitude.”

Bright said the Athens pantry serves a base of about 5,000 people, with 400 families visiting a month. The organization’s average annual budget is about $60,000, she said.

“We are so grateful for this opportunity, and we are going to move heaven and earth to make sure we do this the right way, to honor and respect what Joey has done for us,” she said.

Michael Kelly can be contacted at mkelly@mariettatimes.com.

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