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For the past three years, Hilton Head Island resident Samuel Christopher has ridden his bicycle to Sandalwood Community Food Pantry every Tuesday and Friday.
As a volunteer, he helps prepare the pantry to open at 11 a.m., rushing from shelf to storage -- stacking boxes of macaroni and cheese, turning cans of tomato sauce so the labels face forward, and pausing to help another volunteer put boxes of Tastee-Os on the top shelf.
At Sandalwood, the patrons and volunteers are one in the same. When the truck arrives from Second Helpings, a nonprofit group that rounds up food that would otherwise be headed for the landfill, pantry founder and director Nannette Pierson calls for everyone around to help unload.
"At our pantry, the haves and have-nots are on equal ground," Pierson said.
This month, the Sandalwood Community Food Pantry celebrates its four-year anniversary. It started in apartment 121 at Sandalwood Terrace, public housing on the north end of Hilton Head under the Beaufort Housing Authority.
Pierson saw hungry children everywhere, but said there was a fear of that area. A 19-year-old boy had been murdered at the complex in April 2008. Help was afraid to come that way.
But Pierson wasn't. She met with the Beaufort Housing Authority, and they provided an apartment at Sandalwood Terrace for her to start a food pantry.
"All I needed was a place where they could come and I could give them food," Pierson said.
It started with five families, but outgrew its original location within a year. Sandalwood moved to the back of a warehouse on Mathews Drive, and then to its current, and permanent, location on Hunter Road. The pantry provides perishable and nonperishable groceries to all who come.
But Pierson wants Sandalwood to be about more than picking up groceries.
"I wanted people to feel an abundance of love, and to be able to give love. It's a place where they know that there are people who care for them, who are waiting for them, who are worried about them, who just want to love them and be there for them," she said. "The food is kind of secondary."
WELCOMING THE NEEDY
Pierson moved to Hilton Head Island in 2007 after a difficult divorce. She had studied in seminary to become a priest, but because she disagreed with some of the church's doctrines and tenets (especially regarding homosexuality), she decided not to be ordained. She was an associate pastor at a Presbyterian church and preaches at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Lowcountry in Bluffton.
But she sees the church falling short in welcoming the poor and needy. Pierson says that those who come to the pantry are often not welcome in churches. Their clothes might be dirty, and people might not want to shake their hands, smell their breath, have their children near them.
"And that breaks my heart because those are the people I love," Pierson said.
So she says that now, the pantry is her church.
"They're beautiful people, but they don't always have a place," she said. "I do what Jesus did, I get dirty. I've never seen a church like this."
Hilton Head resident Dominic Edmunds, 63, began coming to Sandalwood about year ago when a friend told him about it. He said he sees greed in the world, sees the country divided, sees hypocrisy in the church, and sees a need for more people like Pierson.
"This is truly about humanity," he said. "It's not your race, it's not your financial status, it's not how beautiful or handsome you are. It's just humanity. And Nannette does a very good job of bringing that out."
A year after opening the pantry, Pierson was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. And during her three months of treatment, volunteer Gigi Carranca, 46, said Pierson still showed up at the pantry.
"She came all the time, and everybody would say, 'You got to go home,'" Carranca said. "When she was home, people would call and report everything that happened here."
Pierson's scans are now clear. She teaches yoga part-time and just recently started earning a wage from Sandalwood ($471 every two weeks), so she relies on her retirement fund, financial support from friends, and the money she receives from preaching.
'YOU CAN TELL WHETHER YOU'RE WELCOME OR NOT'
When patrons arrive at the pantry, they sign in, receive a ticket and wait next to the building. Plastic chairs form a circle on the concrete slab next to the pantry. Some chat with each other, others fiddle on their cellphones, and some just sit waiting.
Pierson hands out baby quilts to mothers, and Christopher passes out Capri Suns.
At noon, Henry Jones leads a prayer. Jones began coming to the pantry three years ago for the food, but has stayed because of the way people are treated.
"You can tell whether you're welcome or not," Jones said. "Nannette is good-hearted. She knows how to talk to people, how to treat people."
After prayer, Pierson reads a devotional titled "What If?", which asks the question: What if Jesus were to become you for the day? How would Jesus' priorities govern your actions?
She then calls for the elderly, sick and struggling to go through the line before calling out the numbers on the tickets -- first in English, then in Spanish. People begin lining up with their containers to fill -- reusable grocery bags, plastic ones, a Dallas Cowboys rolling cooler.
As the pantry prepares to close, Christopher puts on a pair of yellow rubber gloves, his plaid collared shirt tucked into them. He fills a blue plastic bucket with water and lemon-scented Pine Sol, wrings out the mop before pushing it back and forth across the bathroom floor.
When he is done cleaning the bathroom, he taps Pierson on the shoulder and asks her to come look.
Pierson's face lights up, "I just love you Sam," she says, giving him a hug.
Christopher grabs his cleaning gear and wheels it to the front room, the next floor needing to be mopped.
When his work is done, he collects his items from the pantry, including a gift-wrapped Valentine's Day gift from Pierson and red frosted cupcakes to give his girlfriend for Valentine's Day, and pedals away.