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Returning the food-shelf favor

Woodbury resident John Ethridge has been volunteering with the Christian Cupboard food shelf for the past three years after coming to them when he was in need.

Woodbury resident John Ethridge made his living working in construction as a large home builder. But four years ago he found himself unable to go to work because his multiple sclerosis had become too severe.

"I got sicker where I couldn't work anymore," he said. "Things just started sliding downhill for me."

It was then that Ethridge had to leave his job.

Ethridge and his wife found themselves in a tough situation as his disability reimbursement and her income weren't enough to help keep the family afloat.

"We started looking at ways that we could help the family," he said.

It was Ethridge's wife who discovered Woodbury's only food shelf, Christian Cupboard, located in the basement of Woodbury Lutheran Church.

"I drove by it about three weeks in a row," he said. "I couldn't go in as a man that had provided for his family - I just ouldn't do it."

Eventually Ethridge did go into Christian Cupboard where he met owners Dick and Sharon Wolff, the food shelf directors.

"They were the most gracious people I had ever seen in my life," Ethridge said. "They made me feel totally comfortable and made me understand that this happens to anyone.

"Going to the food shelf wasn't for the people you would think just live under a bridge or something. This is for real people that don't know where to go."

Now he's giving back to the program that helped provide for him.

About six months after Ethridge's first visit to Christian Cupboard, he went to work as a volunteer for the food shelf as a way to show his gratitude to what a difference it made in his life.

"It helped us survive," he said. "It was history from there."

Serving the community

Christian Cupboard has been open for more than two decades.

On average Christian Cupboard can see as many as 150 families per week, which equals roughly 480 individuals.

Every week, Christian Cupboard hands out between 6,000 and 7,000 pounds of food.

Christian Cupboard distributed roughly 300 Thanksgiving meals on Saturday.

The meals included a gift certificate for a Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, Jell-O and pies among other items.

Christian Cupboard president Dick Wolff said Christian Cupboard continues to have its shelves stocked, but it remains in need of donations since the number of customers continues to rise.

"Fortunately the generosity of the folks in this area has allowed us to continue on," Wolff said. "But, some people who used to donate are now clients."

Ethridge, one of 50 volunteers, can be found at Christian Cupboard two times per week on Mondays and Fridays.

On Mondays he is there to accept the deliveries and begin stocking the shelves.

On Fridays, when the food shelf is open, Ethridge can be found greeting customers as well as sorting food.

"I try to come in as long as I physically can," he said. "It's like a family here."

When Ethridge first began volunteering, he said some days could be really challenging. Some of the people who came to the food shelf would occasionally snap at him because they were scared or even embarrassed.

Ethridge said he was eventually able to move past that.

"It's all about serving," he said. "Some people are great to serve, some people are a little of a challenge to serve, but they all need to be served - and we serve them with a smile."

Ethridge said he is even on a first name basis with some of the regulars.

"We try to make it fun for them," he said.

Connecting with customers

For many people, like Ethridge, going to the food shelf can be a very daunting or sometimes impossible task.

The food shelf can carry a stigma about it where people don't want to admit that they need a little help because of how it may look, Ethridge said.

"There's a lot of people in this town that need help, but they're afraid to reach out," he said. "They have to drop a little bit of the pride."

Ethridge said he can typically pick out some of the first-time customers because of their body language.

He said you can usually see it on their face: they don't know what to do and they're almost uncomfortable being there.

Ethridge said it is those people he tries to welcome.

Additionally, Ethridge said he typically will share his story with those who seem a little nervous since he was in their shoes not that long ago.

"I know a lot of people are a little scared in this economy and I want them to know that it's OK," he said. "I went through it, it can happen to anyone - I want them to feel a part of something.

"Coming to the food shelf isn't a negative thing, this is a positive thing."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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