CHEROKEE, North Carolina – Lisa Russell never stops moving. Wiry and direct, she talks with her hands while she walks, she hugs, she slides around the corner of the building to counsel a teenager or grab a cigarette, she smooches a baby, she heaves bags of groceries into car trunks, she dashes up a hill to troubleshoot.
Wearing jeans, a grey sweater and work boots, her phone shoved into her back pocket unless it rings, which it does every few minutes, Russell is everywhere at once, both sympathetic and taking no grief, keeping track of those who’ve shown up and those whose absence may be a sign they’re in trouble. She knows their histories, their roadblocks, their dreams.
Russell runs the Living Waters Food Pantry, up a windy road a handful of miles outside Cherokee in western North Carolina. At least an hour before the doors open, the driveway in is lined with the cars and trucks of people looking for help.
Russell’s husband, Jack, is pastor of Living Waters, a mission church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – a ministry to people from the Qualla Boundary, home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Both Lisa and Jack are Cherokee themselves – he’s the only ordained Cherokee minister in the ELCA – and came to this ministry more than a decade ago. They have roots in Oklahoma, the endpoint, at least geographically, of the Trail of Tears, which cost so many Cherokee lives and left a legacy of enduring pain.
Members of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are descended from Cherokee people who did not leave in the Trail of Tears, or left and returned.
When the Russells came to Living Waters, they started with the church. After conversations with the tribal elders, they added the food pantry – and from there, it’s “grown and grown and grown,” Lisa Russell said.
Volunteers line the walkway with boxes of toys and household goods; there’s a clothes closet, from which people take what they need. Food comes from the MANNA FoodBank; Russell also writes grants and has built a network of support from all over the region. She greets almost everyone by name; asks them to bring food to elderly neighbors; organizes a platoon of volunteers who stock the shelves and laugh and joke and haul wagons loaded with food back out to the cars.
She’s no pushover, but she doesn’t ask for proof of income – and people come from all over the area, about 700 families a month. “If you come up here and tell me you need help,” Russell said, “you need help.”
Russell says there are plenty of hungry and homeless or near-homeless people in this area – sleeping outside in the summers, in the winter seeking shelter from the cold. Where do they live?
In rusting shells of campers or trailers in the woods – sometimes with no electricity, running water, windows or heat – but there’s a roof of sorts. Near car washes, “anywhere there’s some heat.” She points – one man is camping around the side of the church.
What drives food insecurity? “Most of it’s economics. In this area there are no places to work. You’re going to work fast food, for the tribe or for the casino.” In much of the Smoky Mountains, the economy depends on tourism, so work is seasonal. From October to April, some of the motels shut down.
Many who use the food pantry are on fixed income or disability. “It’s not like they can just go out and get a job,” Russell said. “They can’t.”
People come to the Living Waters pantry from all around – all the neighboring towns and counties. Some grew up here – this has always been home. Others made their way to the mountains from across the country, drawn by family connections or looking for a better way of life.
Katherine Holloway, a retired nurse, said she’s lived in the area for 26 years, drawn by “a simple way of living. … The outer world is too crazy. Getting back to dirt. Every time I leave the mountains, I come back.”
Lisa Donovan, from Bryson City, came to North Carolina from near Philadelphia, with her husband, then a long-distance trucker. Here, “it’s a much slower pace,” she said. “This is what you want for your kids. You want them to play and skip rocks.”
She worked too – as a substitute teacher and later in an ophthalmologist’s office. “You have to really pound the pavement to find a good job,” Donovan said. As Holloway put it: “This place definitely teaches you how to survive.”
For Donovan’s family, the last stretch has been hard. “This was not my life a year ago. My husband lost his job. He was the primary bread winner. I’m disabled,” from a spinal injury.
Her husband works now at an auto parts store, earning less than $10 an hour and trying to support the family, although their daughters are now grown. “Meat is not on the menu” often, Donovan said. Without the food pantry, “we would probably be living on a steady diet of ramen noodles and bread.”
It took Donovan a while to “put aside the pride we all have in us,” she said, to come to Living Waters and ask for help. She was a Girl Scout leader, and “I always thought of myself as the donator,” the one who collected for others, not the beneficiary. “I never, ever pictured the day I’d be on this end of the box.”
At the Living Waters pantry, “once you put pride aside,” she found, “you realize there are others, just like me.”
One of them is Kim Lydecker, a single mom who lives in Bryson City with her two children, and volunteers at the pantry. “Out here in this community, there’s not a lot of money to go around, “ Lydecker said. “Every bit that you don’t have to spend at the grocery store, you can put to your power bill, your light bill.”
She recently had surgery, so has been off work from her job at a restaurant. The food pantry is a “huge blessing,” she said – so she volunteers as a way of giving back. She says Russell gets to know everyone, and keeps a running list of what they need – a microwave, a pair of boots, a bunk bed. “She’s firm, but she’s fantastic,” Lydecker said of Russell. “My daughter just got her eighth grade formal dress” – Russell had found it and set it aside for the girl, Bryanna Rhoades, who was volunteering as well.
This place is organized. People sign up on the list when they arrive at the pantry, then once Russell pulls up the big overhead door in the downstairs garage, their names are called in order – with each guest choosing set amounts from what’s offered, everything from pasta to cereal to whole cakes to frozen chicken and pork loin to personal and home items such as shampoo, birthday candles and cleaning supplies.
Outside, volunteer and church member Ricky Frederick hands out fresh fruits and vegetables – piles of collard greens, potatoes, oranges, apples, green peppers, eggplant, spaghetti squash – along with cheerful suggestions of how to cook the produce.
Church member Bob Reed acts as sort of a traffic cop – instructing people when and where to pull up to load their vehicles when they’re finished shopping. He points to one man driving a car with no reverse gear – the man parks strategically, so he can roll it back down the hill once the groceries are onboard.
A Vietnam veteran, retired car mechanic and member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Reed said he was “a roamer” for years, moving from one church to another until he found a home at Living Waters. There are jobs around, “if they’re willing to work,” Reed said. But some are “living under the bridge, or just a little tarp.”
Right now, he’s helping a young woman with a 19-month-old baby whose pickup truck is loaded with food, but won’t start. It’s her grandfather’s, and the battery is old and the license tags expired; her own truck is in the shop. Reed props up the hood and a trio of guys goes to work, fiddling and adjusting, trying to jump the battery. Russell darts up the hill to help, pulling a tool from her pocket, sliding down and shimmying under the truck to check out the problem from there.
“She works from daylight until after dark,” Reed said of Russell. “She’s a Lisa of all trades.”
Finally, after patience and much cajoling, the truck’s battery gurgles to life. The baby is still sleeping. Hard day? “Just another one,” the young mother replies, sliding behind the wheel. “There are a lot like this.”
Down the hill, Russell loaded boxes of groceries into the trunk for Penny Johnson, a 60-year-old grandmother whose story reads like trouble piled on trouble. Last April, she was standing by the cemetery at her brother’s funeral, when a car crashed into her from behind. Another brother was driving that car, with the preacher riding along in the passenger seat, heading for the graveside service. The brakes failed; Johnson was pinned under her brother’s car and airlifted by helicopter to the hospital; she nearly died.
She’s disabled now. Two of her grandchildren live with her. Their mothers, Johnson’s daughters, struggle with addiction to heroin and methamphetamine, she said. Her house has been broken into six times. “What don’t get robbed, they walk out the door with,” Johnson said. “I do struggle. … It’s hard, paying rent and the light bill.”
Russell, she said, has found clothes for the children – “that’s not in the budget. … She’s a godsend. Can’t help but love her. … If it wasn’t for this place, we wouldn’t make it. We’d literally be eating beans every day.”
Sharon Porter takes care of her 97-year-old mother, with trips to the Living Waters pantry pretty much her only break. “I love this place,” Porter said. “I love these people. … I could never afford the food, I could never afford the clothes, I could never afford the vegetables.”
It’s near the end of the afternoon, and Russell pauses, but only for a minute.
Why do this work?
“Why not,” she shoots back immediately. “It’s what you’re called to do – to help your fellow man.”
She starts to say more – about poverty, about not judging, about hope.
And her phone rings, again, and Russell lifts it to her ear – “Hey, you” – and jolts back into motion.