'I'm here. I'll help you': Rhonda Lee saw hunger, she opened her own food pantry

Katelyn Waltemyer
Jackson Newspapers
Rhonda's pantry has items from jelly packets to toothbrushes.

COTTAGEVILLE Her husband lost his job last March. She lost hers three months later. She works full-time now, but instead of working in the oil and gas business, she's voluntarily operating her own food pantry in Jackson County. 

It wasn't her hardship that inspired her. Rhonda Haynes Lee, of Cottageville, said she and her husband had paid their bills out months in advance  they weren't worried. But she knew people who were. 

She saw a friend on Facebook asking questions about how to enroll in unemployment. 

Lee had a feeling. There was more going on. After reaching out, she discovered the person needed food. That's when she got moving. 

Since March 2020, she has voluntarily turned an entire room in her basement into a pantry. Her grandchildren call it her "store." 

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The pantry isn't a 501(c)(3), and Lee said she doesn't plan on making it one because of the restrictions that come with it. She said she's heard of people getting turned away at other food banks because someone had already used their address. 

Lee knows what it's like to feel hungry. She was 19 when she had her first child. He had asthma and needed a particular medication to treat it. After crunching numbers by hypothetically dedicating her entire food budget to his medicine, she still fell short. 

She had to do the hardest thing.

Ask for help

She walked into the pharmacy, explained the situation with tears rolling down her cheeks and was able to start a payment plan for her son's medication. 

Whenever she gets a call from a crying mother with no other options or a frantic father who feels like he's let his family down, she always responds with, "It's OK. You don't have to cry. The hardest part's over now." 

Asking for help with her son's medication wasn't the only time she felt helpless. 

In 1995, Lee lost her house to a flash flood. Everything was gone. She had nothing. She had people give her food and clothing, and now it's Lee's turn to give back. 

She has no idea how much she's spent on food. Her husband has gone back to work, and she's focused on the pantry. She said she relies heavily on donations and coupons. But whenever she runs low on certain items, she'll either place a Sam's Club order or run to the grocery store. 

Coupon master

Whenever she gets an online coupon for Kroger or Walmart, she said she'll use family members' accounts to get as many discounted items for the pantry as possible. 

All of the cashiers at Kroger and Walmart know her now. She likes to shop in the mornings — around 8 a.m. — when it's slow so she doesn't hold up the line too much. 

She has no idea what's in her refrigerator upstairs, but she always knows the inventory of her pantry downstairs. 

When she goes grocery shopping for the pantry, Lee buys meals.

"I assume you have zero to start with," she said. "I have to provide everything you're going to need to eat that day."

She always asks if there are any food allergies and how big the family is. From there, she prepares the bags. 

Lee likes to always have a certain amount of everything. She doesn't like to get lower than two cans of chicken, two tubs of butter or two cartons of eggs.

Whenever a family gets food from her pantry, she supplies them with things like a box of pancake mix, syrup, eggs, bread, bologna, milk and a meal like a pizza kit or Homestyle Bakes. It's important, she said, to provide families with whole meals, and not just bits and pieces of one. 

She likes to include a dessert, too. When she's met families to deliver food, she's seen kids screaming and crying i the backseat. Once they got a cracker or a cookie, they were content. That's why she does it. 

The pantry has grown way past her expectations, Lee said. At one point she became so overwhelmed, she created A Helping Hand Facebook group where Jackson County residents can post things they are getting rid of or need. 

Giving 

Since opening her pantry, she gets all kinds of donations. Last Christmas, she got 50 hams so she hosted a ham giveaway. Her friend, and pantry volunteer, Rebecca Hoff, of Cottageville, helped hand them out. 

There were more people who showed up than were on the list to get a ham, but Lee said that didn't stop them. By the end of the day, 60 hams were given out. 

It was freezing cold, Lee said, but they had the best time making sure people in Jackson County were going to have dinner on Christmas. 

COVID-19 has prevented some churches in the area from giving out hams before Christmas, she said, so she thought she'd step in and help. 

Hoff said she wasn't surprised when she found out Lee had started her own pantry. 

"It's so Rhonda," Hoff said. "She's great with coordinating, she's great with organization and she cares a lot."

Lee goes out of her way to make sure hungry people get the food they need. They can stop by her house to pick up the meals, she can deliver — within the county — or she can meet people in a public parking lot. 

When she makes donations in the blessings boxes across the county, Lee said she leaves a card with her contact information in case people need more help. 

All recipients, and donors, of the food pantry remain anonymous. Lee said she's helped people in Ohio, the homeless population in Jackson County. Couples who are just starting out and single parents. 

She runs about 10 trips a week across the county delivering food. 

She urges people who are struggling to put food on the table to reach out to her. All a person has to do is send her a message on Facebook asking for help.

— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at kwaltemyer@jacksonnewspapers.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.