- Associated Press - Saturday, September 5, 2020

FAIRMONT, W.Va. (AP) - The large open space inside the Marion County Election Center off Merchant Street resembled a grocery store warehouse with 24 pallets of nonperishable food and drinks piled high.

Inside, community volunteers worked an orderly assembly line, packing hundreds of plastic shopping bags for distribution to area residents. Without request, cost or obligation, more than 1,000 households this week and next will receive the free foods on their front porches.

The first-ever Amy R. Parks Convoy of Hope is being executed meticulously, generously and without fanfare, delivering truckloads of groceries, everything free of charge, to citizens in communities affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today is the day I honor my mother. As many residents of Marion County know, I protested during my mother’s funeral because the City of Fairmont denied her the ability to have her last wishes honored and have her funeral at Windmill Park,” said Romelia Hodges, who organized the event. “This is my way of grieving because my mother was very much an advocate of the community. In her honor and memory, I decided to pick up that torch and move forward with it.”

To that end, Hodges worked with the Springfield, Missouri-based Convoy of Hope, a faith-based nonprofit that provides food, supplies and humanitarian services to impoverished or otherwise needy populations to achieve her goal.

“I was researching some things I could do to support communities that have been ravaged by the coronavirus since last March. I stumbled upon the Convoy of Hope on the internet and simply stepped out in faith and made a call one day. I spoke with the vice president and he said, ‘Absolutely, we’re going to send you some help. When do you need it?’ He was ready to send a truck here the very next day,” said Hodges.

Founded in 1994, Convoy of Hope has provided more than $1 billion in food and aid to more than 115 million people worldwide. The organization perennially receives a four-star rating, the highest possible, by Charity Navigator, a charity assessment organization.

According to Hodges, eight different “fringe” communities, small towns and former coal mining camps, as well as at-risk neighborhoods across three counties will receive the goods. In Marion County, those towns included places like Carolina, Monongah, Grant Town, and Worthington.

Hodges said recipients were not based upon social or racial criteria, but took into consideration communities in their entirety and need.

“We looked at the demographics of communities that have COVID-19 positives living there, as well as other factors, and produced a map of where we felt the distribution of these goods needed to go. These are vulnerable communities with low-incomes who need these resources,” Hodges said.

In advance of the distribution days, Hodges worked with citizens from each community, enlisting them as “site coordinators.” The site coordinators then informed their neighbors of the project, targeted the households to receive the goods, and helped with the delivery.

Hodges said the site coordinators worked with individuals from The Peacekeepers, “an anonymous group of Fairmont do-gooders,” who helped ensure Convoy of Hope supplies made it to their proper destinations.

“We’re going to hang these bags of groceries on the doors of individuals,” she said. “That way, instead of blocking up traffic in the City of Fairmont and requiring city resources, we’re using small town volunteers to deliver these items directly to the people.”

Households in need of groceries may also arrange to have bags delivered by contacting Hodges on her Facebook page at facebook.com/romelia.hodges. Groceries may also be picked up by appointment in the former Dunbar school cafeteria.

Each household was delivered two bags of items, one containing nonperishable dry goods, the other containing drinks.

“I have a saying that goes ‘The Lord may not always come when you want Him, but he’s always right on time,’” said Hodges.

Hodges was effusive in her praise of the Marion County Commission, especially administrator Kris Cinalli, helping with Convoy of Hope. She commended the Hebert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs and the Fairmont Pizza Hut for providing lunches for volunteers. She also thanked her husband, Patrick Hodges, whom she said helped make the event possible.

More than 40 individuals volunteered to make the Amy R. Parks Convoy of Hope a success, according to Hodges.

Bonnie Watts of Fairmont volunteered on the assembly line for two consecutive days.

“It’s a blessing to be able to help out other people. To know that I’m helping someone who needs a blessing. I feel like that’s what God put us here for, to be able to bless other people,” said Watts.

Lottie Exum’s job on the assembly line on Friday was packing cereal and vanilla wafers. She is no stranger to community volunteering.

“I usually volunteer down at the Soup Opera, but they’re not doing anything inside right now. So anytime someone needs me to come help, I’m glad to come help,” said Exum, also of Fairmont.

Taya Sullivan will be a senior at Fairmont Senior High next month. She said COVID-19 has kept her inside for much of the past several months, but felt the Convoy of Hope was worthwhile and decided to help out.

“I don’t really leave my house for much now, but I thought giving back to the community would be a really good way to spend my time. I wanted to help out in any way I could. It’s really fulfilling,” she said.

Clint Radcliffe, also an FSHS student, said “it seems like the right thing to do.”

“If I volunteer, I get credit at school, but I also like helping out people. Many people in this pandemic don’t have the things they need to eat. I’m just glad I can help,” Radcliffe said.

Lydia Bailey is another two-day volunteer. Looking around the room at the remaining pallets of groceries, she said there’s more work to be done, more food to be distributed.

“We’ve hardly put a dent in it yet. To help those in need or those who can’t get out is important. We’re all in this together. Each one, help one,” Bailey said.

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