Emerald City residents may have been disappointed to discover their wizard was just a man behind a curtain, but local folks are happy to know the man controlling the happenings at the Good Samaritan Food and Furniture Ministry.
And they’ll be sad to see him go.
For the last 10 years, the Rev. Mike Walston has been calling the shots of the food pantry at the Chattahoochee Baptist Association in Gainesville, but on Tuesday, he’ll prepare for his final distribution.
Since November 2002, the 6,000 square foot warehouse behind the association’s office on McEver Road has been Walston’s preferred mission field.
“(Former pantry director) Ronnie Wells was here for 11 years. He’s the one who really developed this ministry. But the food pantry has grown steadily since I’ve been here, mainly because the economy has really gotten rocked,” said Walston, who is the church and community ministries director.
“A lot of folks will want to go to Africa or South America to do this kind of ministry when it’s really here at our back door. We give out food on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. We help about 500 families a week with baskets that have about 120 pounds of food in them.
“Then we probably help another 400 or 500 people who come and just get (individual items) off our shelves. It’s enormous what we do.”
The “we” Walston regularly refers to is the team of more than 100 volunteers that works six days a week to make sure there’s food on the shelves for the folks who need it.
“We’re all over town every day except Sunday picking up stuff,” Walston said. Initially, the pantry was stocked by community food drives and donations from about six Publix Supermarkets and a few meat distributors, he says.
About four years ago, those food sources doubled when the association’s pantry was able to link up with the Atlanta Food Bank and the Feeding America program. Through those entities, the local pantry has been able to get supplies from companies like: Walmart, Target, Sam’s Club and Arnold bread.
Although major changes have happened under his watch, Walston won’t accept credit.
“God has provided for every need that we have had in the last 10 years. I didn’t have anything to do with that except to push the buttons to make it work,” he said.
“Volunteers are what make this work. And this community. The Hall County community supports this thing to the hilt. If we have any kind of need at all, people jump right in.”
The groundwork that lead Walston to the helm of the partnership was laid decades ago.
“I was a youth pastor for 30 years and one of my former young people was a pastor here in Gainesville,” Walston said.
“He was on the personnel committee that was looking to fill this position after (Wells) retired. He called me one day and said, ‘Mike, you might be interested in what’s going on here.’
“I of course came for a visit and came on board. Having the opportunity to have a hands on ministry where I can meet hurting people face-to-face and minister to them is what really appeals to me.”
The same passion for helping is what brought Walston’s successor, Alvin Bagwell to the food pantry.
“I have a heart for this. It fits who I am as a person,” said Bagwell, who will be the director of Good Samaritan Ministries beginning Tuesday.
“My background is in business, but my heart has always been for helping people who are down on their luck.”
About two years ago, he and his wife, Glenda Bagwell, became volunteer drivers, picking up donations and delivering them to the food pantry.
Then at the beginning of this year, Bagwell was asked to take on new volunteer duties as the part-time administrative coordinator for the association.
When Walston announced his retirement plans a few months ago, it was Bagwell that he handpicked with CBA leader Jojo Thomas.
Walston has been busy training Bagwell since the first of June.
“I’ve been totally blown away by the need that’s here. I’ve also been blown away by the volunteers,” Bagwell said.
“That building is hot, but they don’t care. They care about helping people.
“You just don’t realize the magnitude of what goes on (at the pantry) behind the scenes. We’re not just taking care of food needs. We’re taking care of spiritual and emotional needs as well.”
“Nobody leaves out of there without us helping them,” Walston added.
Walston says he’ll be on call to answer any questions that Bagwell may have as he settles into his own reign.
On Tuesday, Walston will leave behind a lot of responsibilities.
Not only was he under the employment of the CBA, he was also with the Georgia Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board. During his tenure, he oversaw a number of projects — like Camp Hope — in addition to the food pantry.
Although he’ll leave behind his keys and duties with someone else, Walston will be taking away a heart filled with gratitude.
“God has allowed me to talk with and minister to thousands of people and to see a bunch of lives change,” Walston said.
“Just to have the opportunity to be a part of something as big as this has been exciting.
“Having the opportunity to work with a community and volunteers who are willing to give up a part of their lives to help others has been great.
“I’m going to miss that. I won’t miss the sweat and hard work, but I’ll miss the people.”