Good Neighbor Carole Sharp: Sustaining Body and Soul

Since Coldwell Banker Neuhaus Real Estate sales associate Carole Sharp took over as the Staunton Food Pantry's volunteer director four years ago, the pantry has fed nearly 10,000 people. In a typical month, the pantry feeds 60 families, up from about 15 families when Sharp started.

They wait patiently in line every Tuesday morning, arriving at the Staunton Food Pantry in Staunton, Ill., long before the doors open at 11 a.m. Securing a spot at the head of the line guarantees getting the best selection of the pantry’s canned goods, packaged mixes, cooking oils, fruit juices, and paper products. Supplies line three sides of the tiny 9-foot-by-10-foot room, housed along with a thrift store, in a former lumber center on the outskirts of this small southern Illinois town. By 2 p.m., most food items are gone.

Coldwell Banker Neuhaus Real Estate sales associate Carole Sharp is the pantry’s volunteer director. Since she took sole charge four years ago, the pantry has fed nearly 10,000 people.

Claudia DeLong, first in line on a recent summer day, started coming to the pantry twice a month two years ago after a physical disability prevented her from performing machine work at a brake-parts manufacturer. Funds became tight, and she had nowhere to turn.

“I really need this food,” DeLong said, after filling the one shopping bag she was allotted. DeLong also receives four monthly coupons to exchange at a local market for a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, a pound of hamburger meat, and a dozen eggs.

DeLong’s story has become increasingly familiar in Staunton, a town of 5,100 residents that’s 40 miles northeast of St. Louis. An increasing number of people in Staunton and surrounding communities depend on its pantry. National organizations, such as the Salvation Army and United Way, don’t have a big presence in the area. In a typical month, the pantry feeds 60 families, up from about 15 families when Sharp started.

Sharp does all she can to keep bread on the tables of Staunton’s needy citizens, even opening the pantry’s doors during off-hours occasionally for those embarrassed by their circumstances. To keep the shelves stocked, Sharp is relentless, rallying volunteers and increasing food and cash donations by coordinating food drives and applying for state grants. On any given day, Sharp may be checking expiration dates on food, stocking shelves, handwriting thank-you notes to donors, or raising awareness by writing articles for local newspapers.

Sharon Hartman, who manages the thrift store, credits Sharp with keeping the pantry alive as surrounding ones have failed. “She’s genuinely made a difference in people’s lives,” Hartman says.

Sharp’s hard work is critical, particularly as more people in the area struggle to make ends meet, says the Rev. Mark Allison, pastor of Staunton’s First United Baptist Church. “Now that gas prices have gone up, those on the margin are more troubled,” says Allison, who oversees the pantry.

“You hear that jobs have been created, but not here,” says William A. Napper, who publishes a newspaper Sharp writes for. “Carole isn’t a Marine, but as a civilian, she’s as close as possible,” says Napper, himself a retired Marine. “She’s a trailblazer for others to emulate.”

Staunton’s economic problems date from the 1960s, when area coal mines closed. In the past 10 years, periodic droughts have hurt corn and soybean yields. Several long-time retail shops along Main Street have shuttered as malls opened nearby.

Despite those changes, many still view Staunton as a good place to raise a family. “The schools are good, and Interstate 55 provides easy access to the town,” says Marie Bartony, broker-manager and a partner at Coldwell Banker Neuhaus Real Estate. The average price of the town’s main stock — a two- or three-bedroom bungalow with one and one-half bathrooms on a small lot — was $80,450 last year.

Sharp’s involvement in the pantry goes back to 1997, when she was asked to volunteer. Helping made her feel good, and it offered a reality check, she says. “I had no idea such poverty existed. Most assume it’s something that happens only in Third World countries.”

In 2001 — about the time she and her husband, John, got into real estate — Sharp became the pantry’s director. She’s quick to credit her volunteers and the town for the pantry’s success.

“It’s a community effort. All I have to say is, ‘I need help,’ and I get it. I’d like to see the number of people who need us decrease, but with the economy as it is, I’m not sure that’s possible,” she says. “In the meantime, I want to be sure that nobody in my community has a food need that’s not met.”

Carole Sharp

The Staunton Food Pantry
Contact Sharp at Coldwell Banker Neuhaus Real Estate
301 W. Main St.,
Staunton, IL