Two cans of pork and beans, a bag of rice, and four bounced checks — that’s what Bobbie Rooker encountered when she took over in 1992 as Madison County’s Action Coordinator, which included overseeing food services for those in need.
Assistance for needy Madison County, Georgia residents was sparse 30 years ago. But that’s changed in a big way over the past three decades. These days, the food bank shelves are stocked with food and much more.
Many empty stomachs have been filled in this rural community thanks to a community rallying behind Rooker and her quest to feed the hungry. Two leaders of that effort are Mark and Anne Lackey of HireSmart Cares, who assist in a variety of ways. The Highway 98 facility in Danielsville is heated and cooled thanks to a new air conditioning unit donated by HireSmart. The Lackeys also make noteworthy monetary donations on a regular basis.
And, of course, there are the blue bags filled with food, clothes, household items — whatever the needy might need. Mark and Anne have attended countless conferences over the years, speaking and passing out blue bags for conference attendees to carry various goodies received at the gatherings.
Well, those bags serve another purpose — carrying sustenance for those down on their luck. The Lackeys stuff the blue bags full, then drop them off with Rooker and her assistant, Leann McMullan.
Rooker said the Lackeys’ donation of the air unit, the food, the funds, the clothes — it all adds up. It shows HireSmart Cares does indeed care.
“Those regular contributions are the glue that holds us together,” said Rooker of HireSmart’s efforts.
The Lackeys’ support for the food bank is nothing new. They’ve always made basic sustenance for the needy a focal point, giving frequent and substantial donations to the Norcross Cooperative Ministries and the Jacksonville Downtown Ecumenical Service Council.
“We’ve always helped the food bank wherever we are locally,” said Anne. “We know that if people don’t eat, nothing else matters. If your basic needs aren’t met, you cannot be a productive member of society, period. When we started out, we didn’t have much. But what we did have typically would go there because we knew it would have the greatest impact.”
The donations tie directly into HireSmart Cares’ big mission: helping kids.
Rooker said seeing a child going hungry is heartbreaking, but it’s a common sight.
“It’s tough when you see somebody, and they’re living in their car, and the car is piled up, and they’re trying to get food, and that kid is grabbing for what you’re handing him because he’s hungry,” she said. “How can you go to school and learn when you haven’t had any breakfast? How can you sit there in school and listen when you don’t know where you’ll be when it gets dark?”
Rooker also launched the county’s Christmas toy program that provides toys on Christmas morning for needy children. The program will be 30 years old next year and will serve 178 local children this year. The donations from the Lackeys help brighten Christmas morning for those children.
Of course, people across the age spectrum struggle. Rooker sees veterans in dire straits, too.
“It breaks my heart to think our veterans are not looked after,” she said. “They really aren’t. We have some that come in, and they can’t buy their medicines, and they don’t have enough food. That’s who fought for our freedom, and it just infuriates me.”
Older residents often find it tough to ask for help, Rooker said.
“I had one client come in the last six weeks,” she said. “He said, ‘I’ve never had to ask for food,’ When you see a person over 60 asking for food, it takes a lot of their pride away. It really does, and he actually had tears and said, ‘I need to eat.’ And I said, ‘We’ve got food. That’s why we’re here.’ He said, ‘Do you have anything that I can do? Can I help you do something?’ He wasn’t able to do that. He could hardly get up the ramp, but he wanted to try to give back. And three weeks ago, he brought me a $20 check. And I took it because it would have broken his heart if I hadn’t.”
Rooker has heard so many stories from those hungry and hurting. It gets to her. And she occasionally drives home and throws a rock to let out some of that pain. Rooker is a rock lover, and her late husband, Bill, would joke with her about having to pick up rocks wherever they went.
“Bill used to say every time we went on a trip, ‘I know, you want to bring back some rocks,’” she said. “He’d say, ‘Look, there’s a pretty rock.’”
And she’d go pick it up.
She still holds the rocks, thinking of the past and contemplating today’s world, which is truly harsh for so many.
“I see a lot,” she said of her work at the food bank. “Sometimes I have to go home and dig a hole in the dirt or throw some rocks across the field. My place is full of rocks. Whoever gets my house will wonder who in the world brought all these rocks here.”
Rooker has endured her own hardships, too. She lost both sons over the past decade, with her younger son, Mickey, passing away in 2013, and the older son, Clay, in 2018. Mickey’s son, Justin, lives with her and accompanies her at the food bank. Look up at the walls of the food bank, and you’ll see elaborate puzzles that were pieced together by Justin. He listens to his Travis Tritt albums, makes cards for people, talks to those who show up needing food and often helps load their cars.
“He (Justin) makes it a better place here,” said assistant food bank director Leann McMullan.
McMullan says the same about Bobbie Rooker. She said the food bank isn’t just a place for those in need to find some physical sustenance but a spot they find a kind soul who listens.
“She is like a counselor,” said McMullan. “People come in, and they just go off, not in a bad way. ‘My husband has cancer.’ ‘My sister’s died.’ And she’s lost a lot and has a lot of experience. So she can relate to it in a way that I can’t. I haven’t gone through the same life experiences she has. So she can understand how they feel, talk to and relate to them, and I think they feel better when they leave.”
Rooker said it’s necessary for a community to be compassionate and to do its best to lift people up when they’re down. And she said Madison County shines these days with the way Mark and Anne support the food bank, along with others.
“I’ve been to conferences and seen all directors and counties coming together, and from just listening, I’ve always left with, ‘You mean Madison County, you do all that? You’ve got that much support?’ Yeah, we do, we have that much support,’” she said.
With support from HireSmart Cares and others in the community, Madison County has come a long way from two cans of pork and beans, a bag of rice, and four bounced checks.
The shelves are stocked and hurting people are getting what they need.
The relief often arrives by blue bag.