By Bill Brewer
If she had lived in the 1700s, Marie Noe’s vocation may have been town crier. As a modern-day resident of Claiborne County, Mrs. Noe wants the public to know that people are going hungry here.
Hunger is no game in this Appalachian county, where residents living paycheck to paycheck—or less than that—lean on each other to make ends meet. The poverty rate in Claiborne is 24 percent, a statistic that comes alive once a week for Mrs. Noe, who works with others to offer relief at the Claiborne Hunger Ministry. This ministry that she helped get off the ground in 1992 has become an extension of her lifelong Catholic faith. It’s also become an extension of her family, including her church family at Christ the King Parish in Tazewell.
Born in 1927 and a child of the Great Depression, Mrs. Noe said she grew up in poverty in Monroe, Mich., so she knows what it’s like for people who need a helping hand. She relocated to East Tennessee when she married.
“It’s all a part of my Catholic upbringing and teaching,” she pointed out. “This is a very poor area, and there are a lot of people in need here.”
Claiborne Hunger Ministry volunteer Jo Cockrum has been working with Mrs. Noe for about five years and is poised to succeed Mrs. Noe in managing the ministry whenever Mrs. Noe retires. That may not be soon.
“This is her life,” Mrs. Cockrum said.
In addition to Christ the King, Mrs. Noe’s life is centered on 211 Montgomery St. in Tazewell. Chances are, you would pass right by the address, maybe not even noticing the sign that hangs above the front door.
But on Wednesdays, this side-street storefront is a hub of activity, rivaling a Saturday morning barbershop or any weekday at the Claiborne County Courthouse a block away.
However, it’s food, not a haircut or a trial, that is drawing people from all over the county and surrounding areas to the Hunger Ministry.
The ministry gives away hundreds of bags of food each week to individuals and families. On a cold winter day, the staples are welcome necessities that fill the gap until the next month’s income.
The 88-year-old volunteer and matriarch of the ministry credits Father Mike Creson, pastor of Christ the King and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in LaFollette, with starting the ministry 24 years ago. But Father Creson will have none of that. He places the credit firmly on the shoulders of Mrs. Noe and other Christ the King parishioners who have worked to support the ministry.
She said Father Creson first recognized a need to feed the hungry in the area when there wasn’t much assistance available 25 years ago. But he deflects any credit to parishioners, who saw the need and acted on it.
Father Creson and Mrs. Noe agree that Christ the King parishioners weren’t the only ones in the area to notice the need and act. Other churches and nonprofit groups in the Claiborne County area have contributed to not only keeping it going, but also to guiding its growth as the need has risen. And the list of donors has grown over time.
Claiborne County isn’t the only area where Father Creson has recognized the need for a food bank. At Our
Lady of Perpetual Help, parishioners have been working with a LaFollette food pantry to provide meals for residents in need in Campbell County, where the poverty rate also is nearly a quarter of the population.
Father Creson explained that shortly after he arrived at Christ the King in 1992, when he was first assigned to the parish, as well as to OLPH in LaFollette and St. Joseph Parish in Norris, discussion of the ministry began.
He returned to the Claiborne and Campbell County parishes in July after serving for several years at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Chattanooga.
“We had been talking about it at Christ the King Parish, and people on the parish council like Ted Falce were supportive. But Marie was really the one who got it going,” he said.
Mrs. Noe, a founding parishioner of Christ the King, recalls the meager early days for the ministry in nearby New Tazewell, inside a vacant movie theater.
“We were serving 700 people a week in New Tazewell. Sometimes, all we had to offer was a bag of beans, but people were always grateful,” said Mrs. Noe, who credited the Tazewell United Methodist Church, among others, for being a partner in the Claiborne Hunger Ministry.
While her motivation for devoting more than two decades of her life volunteering to the hunger ministry is faith-based, she acknowledges there is an even more personal reason.
Mrs. Noe said that early in her adult life she and her late husband faced tough times economically. “So, I know what it’s like. Also, I’m the oldest of 11 kids born in a Catholic home, so I know what it’s like to try to make ends meet. I can relate to many of them (the Hunger Ministry clients) on a personal basis.”
After overcoming economic struggles early in her life, then overcoming economic struggles early in her marriage, she knew what it would take to overcome early struggles in the Hunger Ministry.
“It was very humble beginnings,” Father Creson recalled. “But Marie was instrumental in getting it going. Now, a lot of people depend on it, and so many people use it to supplement their household.”
Mrs. Noe remembers an especially lean time for the ministry when the shelves were almost bare. A farmer appeared unexpectedly and dropped off a load of sweet potatoes. At other times when ministry supplies were lean, cash donations would appear.
“Sometimes we go week to week and month to month. But we’re managing,” she said.
Mrs. Cockrum has watched the ministry expand significantly in the five years since she has been there. As demand has grown, so has supply.
“When I first came, we were bagging about 150 bags of food a week. Now it’s more than 400 bags a week,” she said.
A bag of food includes rice, canned goods, potatoes, a box of pasta and other items such as crackers. The volunteers make sure each bag given away has nutritional value. “We try to make sure there is a meal in every bag. A family of three will get one bag; a family of four will get two bags; and it increases. It depends on how many are in the family,” Mrs. Cockrum said.
The Claiborne Hunger Ministry sees an uptick in demand during the winter months, which prompts the ministry to rely more heavily on donated goods. In the warmer months, Mrs. Cockrum said local residents with gardens will donate produce to the ministry.
Unlike in the early years, Mrs. Noe, Mrs. Cockrum and the other volunteers now have a reliable team of donors who contribute a steady supply of food and services to the ministry. They include grocery stores, local clubs, organizations and businesses, social service agencies, churches, and individuals.
Assistance is even coming from outside Tazewell. A Powell Valley High School club held a fundraiser, proceeds from which were used to buy a freezer. Chu Con, a firm in Kentucky, also donated money for a freezer.
While ministry donations ebb and flow depending on demand and the time of year, the shelves rarely are bare anymore.
Mrs. Cockrum said a Claiborne business donates the use of trucks to pick up food supplies the ministry receives from places like Second Harvest in Maryville. Food outlets such as Walmart, Fresh n’ Low, and Food City donate to the ministry, and even the U.S. Postal Service contributes when it holds its annual canned-goods drive.
Volunteers package food donations on Mondays and Tuesdays, and food is distributed every Wednesday.
“We give out food on Wednesdays, but if somebody comes to the door and says they have no food, we would open up and give it to them. We don’t turn anyone away,” Mrs. Cockrum said.
Mrs. Cockrum shares Mrs. Noe’s passion for the Claiborne Hunger Ministry, and she appreciates the family atmosphere the volunteers have created, which also benefits those who use the ministry.
“If you love it, you put your heart into it. And everyone puts their heart into it,” Mrs. Cockrum said. “Everyone helps us in one way or another.”