Lourdes Ward: Forever the Reach Out Lady
We chatted with Lourdes Ward on a drizzly Saturday morning in her office in West Chester. The Director Emeritus of Reach Out Lakota sits at her desk, “a nice one from Costco” that she says is a bit of an improvement over the green metal table in between clothing racks that she used when she first became director of the pantry 25 years ago.
“One of the things that we’re big on around here is the fact that we don’t go out and spend money on stuff,” she says. Reach Out is 100% community-supported and has grown to distribute between 18,000 and 25,000 pounds of food each month, so it seems that frugality and a lot of hard work has certainly paid off.
Tell us about yourself. What are you passionate about? How did you get here?
Oh, my life story? [Laughing.] I think my passion started when my family moved to the U.S. when I was six, from Uruguay. We didn’t speak any English, and we just came on blind faith. My dad had a work contract. We moved in December, like right before the holidays. We stumbled upon a group of folks that helped people from all different countries, and so they helped enroll me in a Catholic school and helped us find a decent place to live and all those kind of things, and I just remember thinking, “That is so nice. They don’t even know us and look at all the things that they’re helping us do.”
They kind of took our family under their wing, and I just thought, as a little kid, how neat that was that, you know, you could help a total stranger and do something for them. And that always stayed in the back of my mind.
My journey to Reach Out Lakota is sort of destiny, I guess you could say. We decided to build a house here in Lakota and, as we were doing that, there was an article in the newspaper that said, “Community food pantry to open,” and I looked at my husband and I thought, “Oh, that would be so cool! When our kids are old enough, I would love to volunteer there.”
And here we are.
That was 1991 that we started building our house, ʼ92 when we saw the article, and then one day, one of my neighbors comes out and she said, “Look what’s in my church bulletin!” And she shows me that there was a posting for a part-time director for Reach Out Lakota, and she said, “Remember? You’re always talking about volunteering there,” and I looked at her and I said, “But, my baby’s just in kindergarten. I don’t have time for something like that.”
But I went inside and talked to my husband and he’s like, “Well, just go look and see!” And so I went in for an interview, and shortly after, they called me and offered me the job, and it was like, Okay…
So when I started, my baby was in kindergarten and my son was in the second grade, and now my children are 32 and 30. It’s 24 years that I’ve been director.
So your kids grew together with Reach Out Lakota.
My kids never realized that it was a volunteer thing, that you would come in and sort and do those kind of things. They just thought it was a natural thing that everybody did, and so by the time they got to high school, they were being told to write down their community service, and they’re like, “What’s community service?” They both have gone on to do helping professions: My son’s a teacher in North Carolina, and the majority of the students he teaches are nontraditional. My daughter is a licensed professional counselor, and she’s a supervisor at one of the local counseling agencies that works with children and families. They just saw it as a natural progression.
It can be an odd dynamic: In a privileged environment, people tend to treat community service as checking a box or filling their resume; they’re doing good, but there’s still a divide there.
One of the triggers for me is when people refer to the families we serve as “those people.” They’re not “those people.” They’re our neighbors – literally, they are.
One of the things that we really strive for here is the fact that everything is confidential. I tell the clients every day when they’re here: I live here; this is my community, so if you see me at Kroger, I’m not gonna walk up to you and say, “Hey! You’re wearing that shirt you got from me yesterday!” No. You can say hello to me first, and I will say hello to you back, but what happens here, stays here.
But it never works that way. One of my happiest, saddest memories – because as the Reach Out lady, I’m never off duty – I’m at Walmart, and it must have been like December 23rd. And I go by the checkout line, and one of our old clients was working the register. I said, “Hey! How are ya? Merry Christmas!”
And she kinda looked down and she said, “‘Well, it’s not gonna be very merry at my house.” She said, “My husband just got laid off, and we weren’t planning on the lack of income. My kids aren’t gonna have a Christmas.”
And I just about lost it right there in the middle of the Walmart checkout lane and I said, “How long are you working?”
And she said, “I’ll be here till 5,” and I said, “I’ll be back.” So I came over here, and we always have leftover toys that people bring late, and I just started loading up a black garbage bag. [Back at Walmart], I walked up to her and said, “Could you take your break?” And the manager told her she could, and we walked around the corner, and I handed her two black garbage bags. And she just looked at me and she started crying, and I started crying [tearing up] and you know, I guess that’s where my passion is.
It’s like, I didn’t give her a Barbie Dreamhouse or anything like that. They were just small toys, games, but to her, that was like everything; because she went into work thinking, “My kids aren’t gonna have a Christmas,” and now she’s going home with some stuff to put under the tree. That’s the biggest thing that’s a reminder around here: the fact that we don’t need to give somebody a PlayStation. It’s just the little things that really make a difference in people’s lives.
So, how do you navigate the issue of confidentiality without making families feel like they should be ashamed?
One of the things that we’ve done all along and that’s a point of pride for myself and my staff: We try to see people as human beings, so we’re big about dignity, and we get information on the entire family and what their circumstances are, and whenever they’re here, they sit down with us, and we ask them what’s going on. So they see us not as somebody who intimidates and belittles them, because there’s always hugs and tears and happy tears, and everybody realizes the fact that we’re here to help our neighbors.
I think it’s a testament to the staff that I have here. We don’t see folks as a number. We see them as a human being.
Can you talk about those early days when you were building this from the ground up and working to establish those values?
When I was hired, Reach Out Lakota was a 1,000-square-foot facility on Route 42 in Pisgah. And that 1,000 square feet included bathrooms and hallways, so I started out with a green metal desk in the middle of clothing racks because there was no room. And then eventually, somebody left one of those orange cubby divider walls, so then that got added to my little office [laughing]. We’ve always been very grassroots, and we’ve grown from there.
We’re in this building because one of our original board members, Wally Schulze, said, “Why are you paying rent? You should have your own building and have a permanent home.” And then the challenge was how to get a loan when we had no collateral or anything, and he was kind enough to give us the loan. So we built the building and proudly, I think within 10 years, we had paid the mortgage loan back to him. And he was out here digging trenches – Reach Out really is a labor of love and dedication from the community.
Tell us more about the community that’s poured into this place.
We have about a half a dozen churches that have been instrumental with us from day one. We have the Lakota school district, who from day one has always had major food drives for us. Matt Miller, the new superintendent: I was corresponding with him before he even moved to town to start his job, and he was excited to keep partnering with Reach Out. We’ve got the Chamber; we’ve got so many different organizations that are always there for us, whether it’s allowing us the use of the room for our credit counseling classes to letting us take over their churches Christmas week for our Christmas programs. I mean, you know, who does these things? Not everybody’s fortunate enough to have that kind of support.
I didn’t see the words “food bank” or “food pantry” anywhere on your website. I assume that’s intentional.
It is, because if you say “food pantry,” people assume you line up and then we hand you a bag of groceries and you’re on your way. We strive to be the opposite of that. We want to work with the whole family and find out what’s happening in their life that they need groceries.
What are some of the stories you’ve encountered?
We had a lady that showed up, and her husband was very well-to-do. He was in sales, and they had a great income, but then suddenly, she needed a kidney transplant. Suddenly they went from having great income, great house, two cars, everything that we all associate with the West Chester residence… They came in and talked to us, and we helped them.
It’s circumstance. It’s not just what you see on paper. We also have a lot of single parents who have pieces of paper from the court saying they’re supposed to get so much in child support every month, but they haven’t gotten a dime in 10 years. But the children still need to eat. So that’s why we wanna make sure that we look at the whole picture.
We had a lawyer come in – I remember it was a call after hours, and I grabbed my kids, and off we went. This gentleman was very open and upfront; he’s talking about how he was a lawyer and there was a dispute at work and he got laid off, and he said, “I’m in shock. I can’t believe I’m a lawyer and I’m having to come to a food pantry.’
And I remember, I was getting questions from my kids, like, “Mommy! I’m packing a food order for a lawyer?”
And I said, “It doesn’t matter what your occupation is. Things can happen to everybody.” And that’s pretty much the root of Reach Out Lakota. We’re totally independent, which gives us the privilege of looking at the whole picture and not just judging by what’s on paper.
What do you mean by that?
Different organizations have different guidelines they go by, so some might be income based. We don’t do that. When you see a human being sitting across from you that’s telling you, “I don’t know how I’m gonna pay my rent and my child is sick; what do I do?”, it really makes you see things in a different light.
How are people’s challenges different in a suburban community like this?
Well, we have a lot of working poor. We don’t have buses in town, so we have a lot of people that walk to work. We don’t have sidewalks everywhere that these pockets of people live, so that also hurts, and a lot of them are like, one-car families, so when busing was reduced, suddenly we had a lot of people that were trying to figure out, “Okay, how do I get the kids to school in the morning and pick them up in the middle of the afternoon?”
So, you’re retiring in September. Tell us about that decision.
I’m 59 years old now, and it’s been 24 years. I guess I’m just starting to feel exhausted and tired, and I want the mission to go on and I always want the best for our clients. When I hired Peyton for development director, I just remember in the interviews, I could just feel the passion that he had from within, and I just thought, “Ooh. I see him in the future.” And the board agreed that he should be the person that transitions us into the years to come.
It’s exciting and sad for me, because to stop being the Reach Out lady is gonna be very hard, but Peyton is young and he’s got passion and he can come up with new ideas and new ways to help our families and just keep Reach Out Lakota growing and giving our neighbors a hand up.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Let’s see. I’m the Reach Out lady 24/7. I’ve even been like, out of town, and somebody’ll go, “Oh! Are you the Reach Out lady?” And I look at my husband and it’s like, seriously?
I’d say my biggest passion and pastime is my family. My family’s always been part of Reach Out. They’ve all given their time. They’ve all helped me. My mom is now in assisted living, and she’s been a part of Reach Out for so long that clients will come in and say, “Are we gonna see your mom at the Christmas distribution this year?” And I have a grandchild now, so I’m enjoying being a grandma.
This is my family locket. When my family moved here, we were only allowed to bring one suitcase each, so my mom couldn’t bring a lot of memories. But this was my grandmother’s, and she gave it to my mom when she had me. I still keep it around my neck. It’s got my kids in there.
Come September, I’m probably gonna do a little bit of everything, ʼcause it’ll be the first time that I don’t have Mom at home, and no children, and I think I’m just gonna concentrate on me – making myself healthy and just getting ready for the new chapter in my life.
Tell us about an influential woman in your life.
Well, that’s hard. On a personal note, my mother. And she will deny it tooth and nail. She still does. She always says, “I’m so proud of you and what you do.”
And I tell her, “Mom, you always did it without thinking it was volunteering. You helped friends; you helped neighbors.” She volunteered at Shawnee Elementary for 10 years. I mean, she started at 75 years old. She just retired a couple years ago when she started getting dizzy spells.
Professionally – I call her my founding mother – it’s Sharon McGuire, who was one of the originators of Reach Out Lakota. Reach Out Lakota was a little seedling and they entrusted me to nurture and help it grow. She is still involved, and I always try and check in with her, and say, “Okay, Sharon, am I going where you envisioned us going? Is this what you wanted us to do?” And she’s just such an example of a big heart and giving.