She’s been there. Mississippi woman starts community pantry ‘just to help’

Published 6:14 am Sunday, March 21, 2021

Suzette Bishop knows that at some point, everybody needs help.

Bishop has been that person. When schools closed last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the longtime Caledonia High School substitute was out of work. Once, years and years ago, she and her husband Jeff had a home destroyed in a fire, prompting the community to rally around them.

“We were very prideful then,” Bishop said, “but I had some people standing behind me who were like, ‘Just shut up and take it because people want to help you. You accept because people want to help.'”

Lately, Bishop has been able to give back by helping others in a time of need. This winter, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she started the Caledonia Community Pantry, which donates food, toiletries and other essential items to anyone who might need them.

“That’s all I’m looking for: just to help,” Bishop said.

A COMMUNITY EFFORT

Working out of her home on Wood Road in Caledonia, Bishop currently stores what she has in a wooden entertainment center donated by a neighbor. Paper towels, canned goods, cereal, condiments and more fill the shelves.

But she has bigger plans.

Out behind her home, a “Pepto-Bismol pink” behemoth is hard to miss. The eight-by-eight-foot playhouse that once belonged to Bishop’s 14-year-old daughter Elizabeth is currently being used for storage, but it might soon serve a different purpose as Bishop hopes to set up her pantry in town in the coming weeks.

“Mama, why don’t you just take my playhouse up there?” Elizabeth once recommended. “It would be perfect to start you a little something.'”

Champions Towing has agreed to lug the playhouse to its next destination, which could help Bishop clear a cluttered home. A self-described avid canner, her freezer is always full of jars — okra, squash, tomatoes and more.

“You name it,” Bishop said. “I’ve canned it.”

That experience helped Bishop and her husband stay afloat during the pandemic while schools went virtual and Jeff found auto body work hard to come by. Every Tuesday, Bishop’s aunt helped by bringing vegetables for Bishop to can from a pantry in Bigbee.

That gave Bishop an idea.

“We need something like this in Caledonia,” she realized.

In January, she began to collect the items she knew people would need: non-perishable goods, box meals like macaroni and cheese, snacks for children to bring to school and kitchen and bathroom staples like toothbrushes, toilet paper and paper towels.

“I just try to give a little bit of everything that we’ve got,” she said.

A month later, she provided Caledonia alderman Tammy McCool with nine boxes of goods to distribute among seniors at Walt Willis Mobile Home Park. Three more boxes have since gone out to others in need: one man who had been hurt at work, another who was on medical leave and a family whose home burned down just as the Bishops’ once had.

“I’m not looking to support them forever, but people need help,” Bishop said. “If you can help, then I think you’re supposed to do that.”

She’s not the only one helping. Alderman Quinn Parham presented Bishop’s ideas to the board of aldermen at a town hall meeting, and the pantry was officially approved with plans to find it a space in town still pending. McCool is one of roughly 15 Caledonia residents who have donated items for Bishop to pack up and deliver, and Elizabeth helps out, too.

Caledonia High librarian Angela Clark has directed a club under her leadership to hold a food drive to benefit the pantry, and Stephanie Herring’s third-grade class at Caledonia Elementary is doing the same.

“Just because I had an idea doesn’t mean I put it all together by myself,” Bishop said. “It is definitely the community’s effort that made it a go.”

GETTING ‘BIGGER AND BETTER’

In February, Bishop created the Caledonia Community Pantry Facebook group to publicize her creation. The page includes a link to an Amazon wish list featuring a number of essential items: everything from mustard and soup to laundry detergent and toothpaste. All the purchases are shipped straight to Bishop’s house, sparing her the trips around town she used to make nearly every afternoon to pick up donations.

And although Bishop has “a little bit of everything” crammed into the drawers of the entertainment center in her front hallway, there’s one thing she won’t take.

“I don’t want to accept money,” she said. “That’s a whole ‘nother realm of responsibility that I did not want to take on. I didn’t want to have to answer questions to people: ‘Well, where did my money go?’ If you bring me items, I don’t have to worry about where your money went. I can tell you where the boxes went, but I can’t tell you where the money went.”

Bishop said she once kept a detailed inventory of everything she has, but with three children, five grandchildren, her teaching job and her responsibilities, “I just let that little list go on by me.” Whenever she opens her playhouse full of goods, she said she hopes to recruit Caledonia students in need of community service hours for their various clubs and organizations to help out by keeping track of what the pantry has in stock.

It’s one of the ways Bishop hopes to grow her pantry in the months to come.

“My house is just so big — I can only hold so much,” she said. “But hopefully we will get bigger and better as time goes on.”

She said anyone who lives in the Caledonia school district boundaries is eligible to receive items and noted that her pantry would never turn anyone down. There are no qualifications —
“if you have a need and I have something, we’ll supply it,” Bishop said.

She knows well enough, after all, what it’s like to be in need. Now, she can give back.
“Some need and some don’t, so they give,” Bishop said.