It’s not too difficult to find a fourth-grader who knows what they want to be when they grow up.
It’s a little harder to encounter an adult who started at their current place of employment at age 10.
Oglesby native Marissa Vicich said her mother, Linda, drug her along to volunteer shifts at the Community Food Basket of Ottawa. She found she enjoyed the work and the people, and before long was going of her own free will, then in her own free time.
In August 2016, she was hired on an interim basis and became a full-time co-manager that November. Now, with partner Beth Vercolio-Osmund and a bookkeeper, she’s leading the way in addressing the needs of people who can use help putting food on the table every month.
Although individual clients may visit only once a month, the Food Basket is open for distribution from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and 3 to 6:30 p.m. Thursdays. Local donations are crucial, and the basket partners with River Bend Food Bank, a Quad Cities agency that coordinates inventory for more than 300 groups in Iowa and Illinois.
“I love connecting with our clients,” Vicich said, noting the same is true of volunteers. The camaraderie with fellow workers forged her initial attraction to the Food Basket, and before long she was working on summer projects and tackling behind the scenes tasks like packing and moving boxes — “all the things they have kids do.”
Vicich fondly recalls Roy Peters, the former Food Basket director who died in August after an illness. She recounted offering to help Peters with as much as possible, and board members encouraged her increased involvement. When Peters moved away, “the line stepped back and I stepped up” she said with a laugh, noting she is “still willing do whatever is necessary to keep this organization going.”
So while Vicich does draw a paycheck, it’s beyond clear she’s much more focused on helping feed the hungry than seeing the Food Pantry as a job. If anything, it’s a family. Some volunteers put in more than 20 hours a week. Some come for a couple of hours every once in a while. But for nearly two decades, Vicich has been a part of the team that now looks to her as one of its leaders.
“Some of the faces have changed of course over that time, but some of these people here are some of the closet people that I know, and most of them are decades older than me,” she said. “It’s been a transition for sure.”
Vicich is at the Food Basket every morning, picking up items from stores, accepting donations and plowing through paperwork. But she still makes it a priority to connect with clients, as being on the front lines of service seems to nourish her own heart and motivation.
“People think it’s very hard to receive food assistance in terms of a lot of hoops to jump through,” she said, and while that can be true for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Food Basket tries to keep it simple. Families whose children qualify for free or reduced lunch through school are automatically eligible for assistance. Proof of income isn’t required, but clients are asked to attest to their need.
“Our goal is to feed as many people as possible with as little requirements as possible,” Vicich said. “When we do have a requirement, it’s because it’s important. … Our policy is to say yes.”
The Food Basket celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Vicich recalls giving out very small, basic boxes. About five years ago, the board “saw a big explosion in our donated items and then we were able to give more to our clients as well” in terms of variety and consistency. Growth since has been exponential.
Among Vichich’s tasks are regular meetings with other aid agencies for coordination to make sure resources are pooled, not duplicated.
“This job found me, but I’m embracing it. It’s something I believe in,” she said. It’s telling how much our talk focused on the work and the people and not the need for donations (see ottawafoodbasket.org or facebook.com/communityfoodbasket for full information).
In her management role, continuing education has helped Vicich grow “more involved and invested” in providing safe and affordable access to nutritional food for all.
“This is the best way I can do that on a real meaningful level.”
Job? Career? It’s work, and Vicich is more than up to the task.
• SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.