As seen in the Herald-Dispatch on 11-26-20.

For Cyndi Kirkhart, helping others is a way of life. Her career led her across the country before returning home to West Virginia where she serves the Tri-State area as the executive director of Facing Hunger Foodbank in Huntington.

Backed by a team of volunteers and staff members, Kirkhart has remained resilient in order to keep the food bank open throughout the coronavirus pandemic and keep up with a growing need for services. Kirkhart grew up near Huntington in the community of Green Bottom. She graduated from Barboursville High School before attending Marshall University to study psychology. Kirkhart then got her first master’s degree at Georgia State University while living in Atlanta. She went on to get an MBA at Ohio University. “We were blessed to live in a community that was very supportive,” Kirkhart said of growing up with her family in the Mountain State.

Thanks to teachers who showed an interest in her, she learned the value of taking care of someone else. “I think that the more that all of us can do that way, in providing support and helping attend to people’s needs, the better off our community is,” she explained. She said she has worked in safety-net organizations in various professional roles. Working at the food bank seemed like a “natural progression” in her career, Kirkhart said, and August marked Kirkhart’s six-year anniversary as the executive director of Facing Hunger Foodbank.

When the board began looking for a new leader, the food bank’s board president, a friend of Kirkhart’s, asked her why she hadn’t applied for the role. “I said, ‘Because I don’t know how to run a warehouse,’ and she said something to the effect of, ‘Neither do I, but I could still run the food bank,’” Kirkhart recalled of the conversation. After that, Kirkhart put her hat in the ring. Kirkhart spoke highly of the staff and volunteers she has come to know since leading Facing Hunger. Working with others who do great work often leads to success, she said. The food bank has a staff of 26 employees and numerous volunteers to assist with the food bank’s operations, including the warehouse and weekly mobile pantries. “We have been blessed with great teams along the years, and each formation of those teams has led us to great growth,” Kirkhart said. “We all learned together, and it seems like I was just meant to do this.”

This year has shown the need for the food bank. In early March, the effects of COVID-19 were starting to show. As active case numbers grew, economic hardships followed suit. Some businesses closed temporarily or permanently, and many lost their income. As unemployment rates grew, the food bank saw a greater need in the community. Almost 50% more people were in need of Facing Hunger’s services, Kirkhart said. “Some of our local community partners, like the Salvation Army … went from 100 people during a distribution to 400,” she said.

As some coronavirus relief and unemployment benefits came in, she said the food bank saw a slight drop in people needing services, down to a 32% increase of people who normally need the food bank’s resources.

At first, it may not have seemed like the food bank workers and volunteers were first responders, but they have continued to fulfill a critical role, Kirkhart said. For instance, drivers go out every day to deliver to residents in hotspots. Workers must also take care to not just follow health guidelines and coronavirus precautions while serving the community, but to also follow them at home. Of her team, she said they could not be praised enough. “If one person were to bring a virus into the food bank, that would really shut down our operation for a while,” Kirkhart said. As of early August, she said the food bank had not had any issues for potential spread of the virus. The food bank has been blessed to have community support from both businesses and individuals throughout COVID-19, Kirkhart said. Facing Hunger has also had assistance from the West Virginia National Guard since March. Facing Hunger isn’t finished addressing the needs uncovered by the pandemic. Kirkhart said the bandage that was holding emergency hunger relief together for senior citizens, children and more groups of people has been ripped off. She hopes others think about how food can be provided to those demographics if their site to get food is closed due to the coronavirus or if they don’t have access to transportation to those sites during the pandemic.

For Facing Hunger, one solution could be to hire a mobile distribution coordinator to find ways to get food to those in need, Kirkhart said. “We just want to address the obstacles and barriers to hunger relief, and this pandemic has certainly revealed more than we realized.” Kirkhart said she would be hard-pressed to think of a time in her career that had so many areas of need like the pandemic has. She said it might be a once-in-a-lifetime event for many. “Through this pandemic, we have met people who have never had to access emergency hunger relief,” Kirkhart said.

The food bank saw a similar case during the government shutdown and teacher strikes in recent years. She called it a “blessing for us to be able to be there and help them navigate through that process.” One positive that’s come from the pandemic is that it’s encouraged others to find ways to give back to those in their community. For people looking to get involved, Kirkhart said to look around where they live and figure out what their interests and passions are, like animals, senior citizens, veterans or something else. Chances are, a service provider already works with those groups. Next, she suggested making a phone call to them and asking how to get involved. Even an hour of volunteering a couple times a month could make a huge difference to those charities, she said. Making a positive impact on someone else could be a “game-changer” for those who receive help and those who are helping. “A lot of society’s ills can be taken care of by treating others with the honor and respect of humanity versus less than,” Kirkhart said. “The more that we do to make people feel valued and that they are a gift, the more likely they are to achieve better things in their lives. So until I’m proved wrong on that, I’ll just continue to keep trying.”