After spending 30 years working the body shop assembly line at the Newark Chrysler plant, Elkton resident Joann Gilley found that she just couldn't sit still. She retired in 2007 and though she volunteered at local missions during her free time, something was missing.
"The Lord just kept saying, ‘You've gotta do something, you've gotta do something,'" said Gilley, a member of the Charlestown Missionary Baptist Church. So in 2008 she founded her own mission, Tabitha's Pantry, at the Charlestown church to provide clothing, cleaning supplies and food to local residents in need. Three years later, the pantry has expanded, and recently signed up its 500th member.
The mission, staffed by church members and volunteers, is open every Friday. The clothing and house wares section is open to the public and customers who financially qualify can register with the pantry to receive free food.
Staff members said the number of registered patrons visiting the pantry has grown recently. The mission's secretary, Joann Fitzgerald, said in previous years, the pantry would serve 70 to 75 families each Friday, but a recent week saw approximately 100 families. She attributes that to the economic downturn.
As the weather gets colder and the holiday season approaches, staff members plan to distribute Thanksgiving-themed foods the Friday before the holiday. Gilley has kept a stash of new toys to sell around Christmastime.
Fitzgerald said Gilley is the driving force behind the Christmas festivities.
"She's like a big kid," Fitzgerald said. "She just gets so excited over Christmas and doing things for these people. She's got a heart of gold, that's all."
On a typical Friday, the mission is stocked with essentials such as clothes, bleach, dishes and an entire room full of food. But customers can also purchase more-frivolous finds such as children's toys, greeting cards and small decorations for their homes.
Customers are given plastic bags to fill with clothing, and each bag costs $3. Registered customers receive one bag of clothing free each Friday.
Gilley uses the proceeds from customers' non-food purchases to buy food from the Food Bank of Maryland for her families.
She said the pantry must provide customers with enough food to get them through a full week's worth of meals, and when the same patrons visit week after week, they begin to form relationships.
Port Deposit native Theresa Negron, 58, browsed the movie shelf on a recent Friday and picked up a copy of "Lady & the Tramp" for her granddaughter. She's been coming to the mission for approximately one year, and said the workers are always helpful.
"It's wonderful," Negron said. "It's a lot of help for a lot of people."
Gilley's favorite item to collect for her customers is coats and she named the pantry after the Biblical figure Tabitha, who made cloaks for the needy.
Many of the donations come from Charlestown Missionary Baptist Church's attendees, but she also drives around to local yard sales to give residents her card and ask for donations.
Gilley said it's difficult to resist giving away some of the items to the mission's customers, especially when children visiting the mission are excited about a particular toy but cannot afford to buy it, and she occasionally gives in.
Cassandra Johnson, 24, has been coming to the mission for several months since a friend recommended it to her. She was recently diagnosed with cancer and lost her house-cleaning business. She has been homeless and living with relatives since August.
She said pantry staffers help her with finding cleaning supplies and food for her small children.
"And they're really nice," Johnson added.
Though the mission is only open on Fridays, staffers work throughout the week to manage paperwork and collect donations. Gilley said Wednesday is reserved as her day off, but she rarely misses coming to work that day.
"I just can't help it," she said. "I've just got to do something."