Just after 7 a.m. Friday morning, smack in the middle of a parking lot at Community College of Beaver County, he hollered, “Do you want to help out?”
The Convoy of Hope had come to Beaver County.
People were all about a lane in Lot A, unloading plastic bags stuffed with groceries onto the pavement and arranging pallets of bottled water and Gatorade into a two-sided buffet line. Those who knew how set up traffic pylons so drivers of an expected hundreds of vehicles would follow the orange cones along a COVID-19-sanctioned pick- up line.
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Six cars already were parked in the Lot A entrance not far from the college’s Golden Dome, waiting for the drive-thru food distribution to begin at 9 a.m.
A huge tractor-trailer decked in patriotic USA colors and loaded with kindness had arrived Thursday afternoon. In partnership with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Shell Polymers had arranged for the humanitarian aid organization based in Springfield, Missouri, to bring a truckload of nonperishable food and supplies — enough to feed more than 1,000 families.
Late into Thursday night, volunteers from Shell and CCBC packed plastic bags with Frosted Flakes, peanut butter, an assortment of protein bars, shakes, pasta, sauces and stew.
On Friday morning, some 60 volunteers arrived, willing and able to do whatever needed to be done. The cracker plant crew wore Shell’s canary yellow T-shirts. CCBC folks selected college logo golf shirts and tops. Hoodies, leggings, baggy shorts and preferred brand athletic shoes completed the look. All wore masks. Retired Steelers Arthur Moats and Chris Hoke stood out in brilliant white Steelers Legend shirts and seamlessly fit into the hands-on volunteer mix.
The unidentified someone who had hollered to me, I believe, wore black and white.
I wanted to help. But, I was walking fast and I can’t talk at the same time. It has nothing to do with chewing gum or wearing a mask, and lots to do with age. I’m 64. I still love Paul McCartney.
All was going well during my daily mind-time. That’s when I listen to the crows squawk louder than lawnmowers grunt, and I nod or wave hellos to the few others. For an hour or so I wind my way around campus buildings and march up and down CCBC’s three tiered-parking lots as if the lanes were empty supermarket aisles.
I wasn’t working. I was walking. So I didn’t immediately shout out an answer to whoever that someone was.
For the record, I’ve spent 40-plus years watching people make news, asking questions and weaving their words into printed stories. I’ve been assigned, sent, ordered, invited and told to cover whatever.
Never have I been asked to help out. It was time I did.
Given the go-ahead by the editor via an iPhone, I blurred the lines I’d drawn, crossing some, but telling anyone I spoke to that I was writing a story and making doubly sure that I got the basic facts — and then some. The “then some” is the real news.
I went home for paper, pens and my digital recorder.
I came back and introduced myself to John Goberish, CCBC’s dean of industrial technology and continuing education, the unidentified inviter. He said he was joking. Assured by his boss, Roger W. Davis, CCBC president, that we could chat, Goberish, who will be 54 on Monday, said his first job out of college was helping dislocated steelworkers.
He was a student at Hopewell High School in the early '80s when Beaver County’s mills died a cruel death. His dad had a job at Columbia Gas, but his buddies’ dads worked in the mills. Back then he’d seen cars lined up, with quiet people inside, waiting.
I landed a job at the Beaver County Times in early 1984 and saw scared and angry generations of mill workers valiantly struggle for what they’d earned over decades laboring in heat and soot.
Back then, the lineup of cars was big and shiny and American made. The six lines of vehicles that filled two lanes of Lot A around 8:30 a.m. were built most everywhere and bought or leased by Americans who were earning a decent, so-so or just enough money to get by before the coronavirus madness struck in March.
Goberish said he spends his time developing programs that provide the technical skills needed for good-paying career-long jobs at companies such as Shell. He said he felt great because our region was pulling together and sharing resources. Shell has been a good partner, the dean said.
Gladly so, and intends to be for a long, long time, Hilary Mercer, vice president Pennsylvania Chemicals at Shell Chemicals said while cameras rolled.
“We’re here today because this is what we just try to do,” she said. Specifically, to help feed more than 1,000 local families and to show residents that Shell workers want to be a part of this community.
Personally, Mercer said, “I just think that it’s the right thing to do. I work for Shell. It’s just part of our DNA and whenever we get the opportunity of trying to make lives better, we want to be a part of it. It’s just something I’m proud of.”
It became my turn to pitch in and to listen.
For more than an hour, a steady flow of drivers patiently moved their vehicles through the parking lot queue cue, showing IDs and often making small talk. It was a motorcade, not a cortege. “Good mornings” were returned. “Thank yous” were said before any bags were stuffed into car and SUV trunks. At times, laughter spiked a muffled hum of chatter as if it were a pre-pandemic morning.
“Thank you for coming out” was the repeated all-packed-and-ready-to-go volunteer send-off. “God bless” was in the mix many times.
“This is wonderful. It really is, I’m doing good,” a Hopewell Township mom of three said. She’d lost her internet job in April. Thankfully, her husband hasn’t. She doesn’t believe a call back is in her future.
I insisted on lugging case by case of bottled water and bantered among the volunteers as the cars rolled by. Later I broke down empty cardboard boxes with Shell folks among them — a chemist, an electrical and mechanical engineer.
Sometime after 10 a.m. the lineup of cars lulled. The drive-thru became a quick drive-to with plenty of volunteers at the ready to load water and groceries.
Davis, president of CCBC, stood as a greeting post in the parking lot, his head bowed.
I asked, “How are you?”
“It’s hard,” he managed to reply. “A lady got to me. She had to come back around and that choked me up. She has nothing so she went around twice.”
They said a prayer together. “And I told her it was her season and it was going to work out in her favor. That’s what I told her,” Davis said.
When he told me that he was grateful for the morning’s positive energy, he owned his voice.
Greg Bridgeman, Convoy national director, said the lull wasn’t unexpected and that this “point of distribution,” one of more than 1,200 the Convoy of Hope has organized since March, was like so many others.
“The people coming for the help are excited. They’re thankful. They’re apologetic because they feel like they need to apologize for having to come to get food,” Bridgeman said. “We say, ‘Welcome to our home. Please come in. How can we help you?’”
“They’re grateful. They smile. They cry. You can feel the emotion even we’re separated by car doors and windows.”
A campaign begun in March called “10 Million Meals” has served more than 100 million meals globally as of last week, he said.
And then the facts Bridgeman conveyed a stark reality that he said extends from the suburbs into the inner cities and everywhere.
“What we’ve seen on a regular basis that what is happening right now has transcended one social-economic class,” Bridgeman said. “We have people who drive up in cars that might break down in the line — and have broken down in the line — to brand new Teslas.”’
“Whether you are religious or not, you can feel an energy. It feels like people are being blessed here.”
A middle-aged woman pushing a cart packed with water and plastic bags doesn’t have a car. So she walked from Center Grange Road to CCBC, at least a half-mile, 30-minute hike.
“How are you?” I asked.
”I’m good. It helps out,” she said. Several volunteers pushed her basket into the cafeteria. Someone mentioned that she has four children.
Leslie Tennant, CCBC’s associate vice president of communications, said the woman spoke to a CCBC coordinator about completing her GED.
At 1 p.m. a Salvation Army van arrived. Volunteers loaded the bags, Gatorade and water into the vehicle which will deliver the items to their locations in Aliquippa and Beaver Falls.
In all, Tennant said estimates indicate that 500 cars came through Lot A, providing enough food to serve 1,500 people. When the Salvation Army delivers the remainder, a total of 3,500 area residents will have been served.
And the lady who lives on Center Grange Road?
Curtis Thomas, Shell’s external relations manager, gladly drove her home.