FORT WAYNE – In early 1993, two senior citizens decided to check out a local food bank to see what it was all about.
While touring, the two women encountered a need for assistance in the warehouse, and without hesitation, rolled up their sleeves and began sorting donated food.
More than 20 years later, Bernardine Bernie Kaniuth and Rita Fleckenstein are still at it, helping out at the Community Harvest Food Bank on Tillman Road and delivering groceries to senior citizens.
Both women are seniors themselves – 88 years old – but their energy and enthusiasm belie their age.
Most of the people we deliver to are younger than us, Fleckenstein said, causing the two women to chuckle.
The women have never missed a day – even in bad weather – delivering groceries for the SeniorPak program, a biweekly grocery delivery for homebound, limited-income seniors.
Fleckenstein has asthma, uses a cane and admitted candidly, Im slower than I used to be but still going strong.
Fleckenstein helps load the groceries and drives the car to the assigned homes while Kaniuth carries and delivers the groceries.
As soon as Bernie is not strong enough to carry groceries, we are done, Fleckenstein quipped.
The women have been friends for 50 years. Both worked for a school corporation in California – Fleckenstein in payroll and Kaniuth as an administrative secretary. After retiring in 1982, they moved to the Midwest to be closer to family members in the Fort Wayne area.
When they showed up Sept. 26 at Community Harvest Food Bank to make their scheduled deliveries, they carried with them a spray bottle of spot remover they had concocted. They supplied the recipe to their supervisors and strongly suggested the food bank create and distribute the solution to clients.
Tammy Klimek, programs manager, said it would not be out of the question to stock the homemade spot remover. The food banks staff regularly mixes a solution of laundry soap to distribute to its clients, she said.
The women went the extra mile when they began volunteering in the warehouse, not only completing their assigned tasks of sorting and unpacking groceries, but also cleaning up the messes left by broken and damaged containers.
We cleaned so much, the other workers started calling us scrubbing bubbles, Kaniuth said.
In addition to volunteering at the food bank, the women have also helped at church fundraising events, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Womens Bureau and with the Red Cross Therapeutic Aquatic Training program.
When we retired, we decided that God and everyone had been so good to us that we wanted to give back, Kaniuth said.
The women volunteer every other Thursday for eight hours in the warehouse, sorting through bins of donated food.
Sometimes, there would be a broken bag of cat litter or a broken bottle mixed in with groceries, so we had to clean as we unpacked, Fleckenstein said.
The women have seen numerous expansions, renovations and personnel changes during their tenure.
Weve been here awhile – weve seen them go through three freezers, Fleckenstein said. We were in our 60s and in good health when we began in the warehouse.
But that was in the early days, and many times the donated food was thrown haphazardly into large 4-foot industrial bins.
It was not all packaged nice and neat and stacked on pallets like it is now, Fleckenstein said.
We were getting older and less agile and had to climb into the bins to sort the items, which we did, she said. The problem was getting back out.
Sharing food, words
Fleckenstein and Kaniuth have become friends with some of the people on their route. Sadly, theyve seen more than a few get sick and die or move away.
So many of them live alone and just want to talk to someone, Kaniuth said.
And there are some people who do not want to talk at all, but they are happy to get the groceries, Fleckenstein said.
The two women have become friends with their co-workers.
Meeting and working with the staff has been such a pleasure, Kaniuth said.
The administration does a remarkable job of coordinating the distribution of about 250,000 pounds of food to 21,100 people every week, Kaniuth said.
They credited Executive Director Jane Avery for the expansion of the facility and the growth and success of the food programs.
When Jane came on board (1996) she created more public awareness about what was going on here, Kaniuth said.
Last year, the food bank had more than 7,000 volunteers who donated more than 60,000 hours to the massive job of food distribution, Director of Development John Guingrich said.
Our dedicated volunteers are priceless, Guingrich said, smiling and nodding in the direction of Fleckenstein and Kaniuth.
The two women were reluctant to be interviewed, insisting the deliveries were not about them.
Its all about delivering food to those who really need it – helping your neighbors and families, Kaniuth said.
We know how the other half lives, and we want to help, Fleckenstein added.