This week, Donna Wilkerson, director of the First Place Food Pantry, which has been charged with helping hundreds of people in the Miami Valley throughout the coronavirus pandemic, is our Daytonian of the Week.

Our Daytonian of the Week has helped thousands of Miami County residents fight hunger

This week, we’re aiming to honor yet another helper on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic. 

As you likely know by now, many of those who are left unemployed due to the health pandemic are now facing a hunger crisis unlike anything that America has seen in modern times. And, working tirelessly to fight this hunger issue in Troy is our Daytonian of the Week, Donna Wilkerson.

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For the past seven years, Wilkerson has worked as the director of the First Place Food Pantry in Troy. The food pantry, since 2002, has served as the main combatant of hunger in the Troy community, handing out food to thousands of families in Troy and Casstown every year. And now, more than ever, the choice pantry (a pantry in which families typically get to pick out their own groceries from a large selection of donated goods) has become a lifeline for local families who have never had to seek out assistance before the pandemic. Now, food pantries like First Place Food Pantry are more important than ever.

As its faithful leader, Wilkerson has made it her mission to provide groceries and meals to every single family and individual in the Troy community. Her selfless mission began 14 years ago when she felt the need to address this issue as a volunteer at the food pantry. Now, her work is being lauded by other local leaders and nonprofit organizations. 

Read on to learn more about Wilkerson and how she has worked tirelessly to address the issue of hunger amid the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.

To donate or learn more about the First Place Food Pantry, pay a visit to their Facebook page or website.  

Tell us a little bit about your background and what has led you to this point in your career.

I've been working at the food pantry for 14 years. I was a volunteer, and then when the director before me retired, I took over in 2013.

What prompted you to volunteer in the first place? 

Well, my mom moved from Jackson, Ohio, because she had family up here. She started going to the Methodist Church (First United Methodist Church in Troy), and she mentioned that the Methodist Church has a food pantry and asked if wanted to volunteer. I was a stay-at-home mom. I raised my kids at home. My last daughter became a diabetic at the age of about two and a half. So I stayed at home to make sure she was taken care of. I was looking for something to do by now she was in high school, and that's how it all started. And then it really touched my heart. I got a passion for it. And that's all it takes - once you have passion for something, it’s kind of hard to stop doing what you love to do.

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How long have you lived in Troy?

All of my kids graduated from Troy High School. I've lived here for 37 years. 

Explain your current role and how you contribute to the community.

Well, we contribute to those who need to have their hunger met. So that is our basic need. That's basically what we do here. Aside from that, anything extra that we have, we give to other places such as a soup kitchen - there's a place that serves lunch every day, there's a breakfast at the Presbyterian Church. As things are starting to open up, we'll probably try to start doing that more often. As they start opening, we will start delivering things to these places as they need them. We still deliver to Richard's Chapel United Methodist, which does the free lunch. They do boxed lunches, and I think the kitchen does the same thing dinner. So we just been trying to help out the community as much as we can. We help out with the Lincoln Community Center in Troy, which helps kids after school. We're just a community-wide organization that tries to help as many people as we possibly can. 

This week, Donna Wilkerson, director of the First Place Food Pantry, which has been charged with helping hundreds of people in the Miami Valley throughout the coronavirus pandemic, is our Daytonian of the Week.

How have your operations changed because of the coronavirus?

Well, we used to be a choice pantry. Our clients would come in and receive a personal shopper that goes around with them while they choose their food off of our shelves. We are set up exactly like a grocery store — we have glass-front refrigerators and glass-front freezers. We have Kroger grocery carts that Kroger gave us and they go up and down the aisles with their grocery cart and get an entire grocery cart stuffed full of food. There's plenty of food for them to be able to have thanks to the Troy community being so generous with us and making sure that we keep food on our shelves. This community is just awesome. 

Now we don't allow them in because all of our volunteers are in the high-risk range. Most of our volunteers are in that senior range because they're retired and looking for something to do. We shut down our food pantry to all outside personnel or outside people. Even those who donate aren't allowed in. We have a cart that sits outside for donated foods and they have to put it in that cart and then when they leave, we will go out and unload the cart. So, we don't even associate with anybody outside. We have a car line where they line up in front of our building. I go out and stand on the sidewalk. I keep my six feet of distance and then I ask them how many people are in their family. We do boxes for small families and large families. We do the best that we can for the for the families that we have.

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Have you seen a surge in the the number of people attempting to get the food? 

The surge hasn't been as much as I expected, but we've had a lot of new people who never expected to be there, who have shown up. For some people, it had been a month before they had received a paycheck and that's a long time to go and try to figure out how you're going to feed your family. They just never expected to have to use a food pantry and the blessings that I mostly see is that we are able to contribute that way. If there wasn't a pantry here in Troy, I don't know what they would have done. I think about that all the time because we're basically the main food pantry. So, I think my goodness, if we weren't here, that's a very humbling realization of what we do for this community. What would happen if we weren't here in this crisis?

Donna Wilkerson (left) and Sharon Buse prepare offerings for clients at the First Place Food Pantry in Troy. Contributed photo.
Photo: Contributing Writer

How has the Troy community stepped up during this time? Have you seen any more donations? Or any other acts of kindness?

Oh, yes. The donations have been coming in like crazy — monetarily and food-wise. This community is so community-oriented. I could not have asked for a better place to live other than then Troy. It's just one of those amazing places that really is trying to help their community in all aspects, from drug rehabilitation to fighting hunger and investing in healthcare and dentistry. I mean, it's just an amazing group of people who are in this community.  They want to know how they can help during this time. They'll call on the phone constantly and ask how they can help.  And then I tell them what we need and they just bring truckloads or carloads of stuff that they were able to find. It's just amazing to me how much they have really stepped up and made sure that the community was being fed.

What are your favorite places to grab a bite to eat in Troy?

K’s. It's been there for years and it's just so good - very iconic. I love just going there just for the atmosphere alone. You know, it's one of those all-time favorite places to go. Marion's Piazza is one of my favorite pizza places. And of course, you've got the Mexican restaurants, like El Sombrero. We just have such a variety of places in Troy.

What's your favorite hidden gem in Troy?

I love Brukner Nature Center if I just need to go take a walk. And, you know, just to get back to nature. Sometimes you just need to just get out and listen to the birds and to just listen to the quiet inside. That's a great place to go walk and just kind of listen to the quiet. Additionally, most of the little shops downtown are so unique. I love to go downtown and just browse through the shops. They have such a unique way of displaying things and they find the most unique things out there.

Do you have any final words of wisdom to those struggling in this trying time?

We all go through hard times, there isn't a single soul out there that has not, at some point or another, been where they are, if they're struggling right now. So please, please don't go hungry. Please don't neglect yourself because of pride. Please. That's why we're here. We want to help. We want to help you get over the bumps of life. And we all get them. And that's why we're here. I know one of the hardest things to have to do is to ask for help, but please ask because there's so much help out there. All you have to do is ask.

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