Good Samaritans: local services help community

David and Deb Gibbons sit at a white plastic table, one of many in the warehouse-like building. As they dine on their beef stroganoff and peach cobbler, they converse amiably with their friends across the table.

They’re at the East Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl, a non-profit organization that serves hot meals on Wednesdays and Fridays and sack lunches on Sundays. Founded in 2005, ETCSB invites anyone to join for lunch.

“We welcome everybody to come eat with us. Most of our regular clients know our guidelines and that kind of thing. We don’t ask anything of anybody, anybody who comes in is welcome to eat,” Charlie Simmons, director of the soup bowl, said.

David and Deb have been coming here for about a year and are grateful for what it provides.

“We’re thankful for what we’ve been able to receive from the community because we’re still in our own home and we’re still making it, thanks to places like this,” Deb said.

People of all backgrounds eat at ETCSB, many of whom are elderly or disabled. For many of those in the Tuscaloosa area, living on a fixed or low income like the Gibbons, who are both retired, finding enough money to get by is a struggle.

“David is on disability, and has been for a while. That also shrinks your income because you’re not able to work. You’re fixed on what that is, and that’s based on what you paid into the system. For some that works out real dandy, but for others, it doesn’t,” Deb said. “If you’ve been poor your whole life, you stay that way.”

Although the Gibbons worked for much of their life, there were never able to amass savings, due in a large part to a lack of well-paying jobs in the economy. It is places like ETCSB that help to keep them afloat. There are a number of services around Tuscaloosa, like other church groups and the Community Service Programs, which provides a variety of services, to name a couple.

“Different churches around town work through the Community Services,” Deb said. “You can go there and request a voucher for when they are giving out food. And they have a schedule, and you can go to those different places. We have had to tap that in the past, and we’ve been on food stamps since David first went on disability.”

Gibbons also tries to take advantage of Salvation Army thrift stores and the public library. David, a Vietnam veteran, cites the VA as being a large help as well.

“We love to tap the community stuff, and are glad that it’s there. Very thankful that it is,” Deb said.

When living on a low income, any abnormality or surplus costs can be disastrous. Community resources can often save people in a bad situation.

“You may not be in that time of need forever, but you need it right then. And that’s the one thing that can help you from hitting rock bottom,” Deb said.

After the tornado in 2011, the Gibbons’ house was damaged by a tree. The Good Samaritans came and helped remove it.

“Thank God for those people who contributed their time and their work, because that ain’t easy work, trust me. They came in with a Bobcat and power saws, and it took a long time, but they nailed it out in a day,” Deb said. “And we were really thankful, and they were such nice men.”

Later, the Gibbons heard about a program from a stranger they met where Habitat for Humanity would rebuild veterans’ houses.

“They came in, put on a whole new roof, and fixed the soffit underneath the edge of the house where the tree hit the hardest. They painted, they put in new doors, they redid the whole electrical system, new air conditioning, a new furnace,” Deb said. “We have not seen that gentleman since. He was like an angel that came down to give us this information.”

However, their story speaks to a bigger problem, as it is hard for many to take advantage of resources in the community.

“There’s a lot of services,” David said. “I think an issue is getting a word out to people that there’s things available. Most of the things we’ve learned about the different sources we’ve found out word of mouth. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of advertising.”

The two, who don’t have cable, often don’t see advertisements on TV, making it much harder to learn about helpful groups. Others have difficulties with transportation.

“A lot of people have transportation problems. [The bus] may not run close to their residence. I have talked to a lot of people that their big problem is getting places. They can’t afford a car. Transportation isn’t there for them, and America is a mobile society based country. If you don’t have your own set of wheels, you’re restricted,” David said, “Tuscaloosa’s just not capable of supporting a mass transit system that would go everywhere.”

Mayor Walt Maddox also helped serve at ETCSB last Thanksgiving, which speaks to the positive effects the soup bowl has besides food. For many, ETCSB provides a way to socialize with friends.

“We come here as much for the fellowship as the food,” David said. “We meet people, we’ve made a lot of good friends here.”

Simmons, who walks around the tables with a towel on his shoulder and smile on his face, makes sure to talk to everyone who comes to ETCSB. He’s also noticed the effects his group has.

“A lot of our clients, I believe, come because of a need of social activity, a lot come for a desire to be accepted as they are,” Simmons said. “We’ve seen a community actually form and relationships and that kind of thing where people come together for a common cause and a common good. It’s so much more than just the food.”

As the Gibbons leave the building, a few more people come in. Greeted with a smile and a warm plate of food, they sit down with some friends and begin to eat.

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