Pender County church begins food donations again following COVID-19 outbreak

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PENDER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — A community outreach program in Pender County has been hit hard by the pandemic. The Gateway Community Church in Burgaw has been giving away food for 17 years.

That was until last month when four volunteers including Pastor Ted Mercer tested positive for coronavirus.

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Three weeks later, those who have recovered are serving the community again. The pastor, who just out of the hospital, says he is one of the lucky ones.

“You’ve just got to keep going,” said Mercer, “you can’t stop.”

But now, according to Mozell Craft, the group is short one volunteer.

“It’s very hard to believe it, you know,” said Craft. “You know, you’re around somebody one minute, and then the next minute, you hear news like that…. and it’s hard. It’s hard.”

On January 8, one of their longtime volunteers, 68-year-old Tom Simpson died from the virus, surprising the entire group, said Gene Herring, another volunteer.

According to Herring, “Tom was one of those, if I needed his help, I would show up and say, hey man, I’m here. Where you want me at?”

Everyone, including Pastor Mercer agreed Simpson had a servant’s heart, helping serve 95,000 lbs of food last year.

“Well, Tom was a servant anyway. He was a paramedic in New Hanover County. He was a Navy… retired Navy, and so he loved to help people, too.”

Charities were spread thin in 2020. With the greater need, many volunteers found themselves between a rock and a hard place. How do you serve the community, while keeping yourself safe?

“Even though they’re from outside this building,” Herring explained, “they’re family. So you get careless. You don’t wear a mask like you should, you don’t sanitize like you should.”

But now one of their own is gone, that carelessness is no longer an option, volunteers say.

“But since brother Tom got sick and passed away like he did and all, we’re a whole lot more careful,” continued Herring.

The group is now wiping down surfaces, social distancing, and requiring masks. Gateway Community Church says they’ll continue to serve, and are determined to stay safe.

Gateway Community Church in Burgaw offers food Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 11 am to noon, and all groceries are free.