- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Chris Ferguson is somewhat of a legend in the Bethel School District.

Aside from the retired teacher’s well-known getup - which always includes an elaborate hat, tank top, board shorts and flip-flops - the 62-year-old Ferguson is one of the district’s most dedicated volunteers.

Ferguson - known as “Mr. Fergy” to students - has led a farmers’ market-like food pantry at Cascade Middle School every Monday for the last year. The west Eugene school district partnered with FOOD for Lane County to help the nonprofit agency give away its surplus produce, and Ferguson volunteered to run the weekly event.

Ferguson picks up boxes full of apples, carrots, pears, potatoes and squash - which total about 4,000 pounds of food each week - from FOOD for Lane County each week to give to low-income families.

Last week, which marked the one-year anniversary of the program, 282 people showed up to the market to collect food at the middle school, where Ferguson taught seventh grade for more than two decades. At its pre-holiday peak, more than 1,000 people showed up weekly.

About 55 percent of students in the Bethel district qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Nearly three-quarters of students at Cascade Middle School qualify for reduced-price lunches.

Although the free food is available to any community member who is income-eligible, most is given away to students’ families in the district, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he saves some food to deliver to all the district’s schools on Tuesday mornings. He also makes home deliveries to about 30 people within the district who can’t leave their house to buy groceries, or have little money to spend on fresh food.

“My goal is to not let any food go bad,” he said.

Ferguson, who has won several local Rotary awards and the district’s “Volunteer of the Year” award for his service, is modest. He doesn’t take full credit for his work, saying much of it couldn’t happen without help from others.

“There’s Mr. Super Volunteer,” one teacher jokingly said when she saw Ferguson sitting in the teachers’ lounge at Fairfield Elementary School last week after helping out at the school’s student store, which he does every other Friday.

“Oh, knock it off,” said Ferguson, who was dressed in black and gold board shorts paired with a hat that looked like it belonged to an Egyptian pharaoh.

Helping other people, he said, is his passion. Part of the reason he retired three years ago was to make room for new teachers who struggled to find a job.

“I could give up the job but couldn’t give up the kids,” he said. “I love it.”

The extra food that Ferguson helps give away every Monday comes from various donations to FOOD for Lane County, including some farms in California and Washington, said Karen Edmonds, FOOD for Lane County’s programs and services director.

Other schools in the Eugene and Marcola school districts, and some Head Start of Lane County locations, also help give away free food to families, Edmonds said.

FOOD for Lane County conducted a survey to see what families thought about the farmers’ market during its first year at Cascade, Edmonds said.

While some people wrote that their families eat more fruits and vegetables now, several commented on Ferguson.

“One woman said, ‘I’d love to see more carrots, but please make sure Mr. Ferguson stays. He’s great.’” Edmonds said. “People come for him just as much as they come for the food.”

Ferguson’s volunteer work is nearly a full-time job. In addition to several hours every Monday and Tuesday he spends giving away food, Ferguson tutors two high schoolers, two kindergartners and a third-grader. He works with special education students every Wednesday at Willamette High School to beautify the school’s garden.

Ferguson also started a project called Spirit of Giving at Cascade and expanded it to Fairfield Elementary six years ago. Next year, the program will be at Malabon Elementary, he said.

To prepare for Spirit of Giving, Ferguson keeps a storage room at Fairfield stuffed with donated toys, coats, books, pajamas, baseball cards and coloring books. Students go “shopping” for their families during the annual event scheduled around the holidays and pick out free gifts for every family member.

Though his wife is supportive of his volunteer work - she helps every year collect pajamas to give to the students - Ferguson as of this week is not allowed to talk about Spirit of Giving at home for two months. He also likely won’t be taking on any new projects.

“My wife would kill me if I do any more,” he said, laughing.

___

Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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