As Charolette Tidwell, ‘74, stood in line at the grocery store, she noticed the elderly woman in front of her only had cans of cat and dog food to buy. She listened as the cashier asked for the lady’s name, which the cashier wrote down. She watched the woman shuffle away.
“Nosy me, I asked the cashier why she took her name,” Tidwell said with a laugh.
The cashier told her that elderly customers would buy canned pet food to eat and the store took their names to monitor it. Tidwell thought about that conversation on her drive home and as she put away her groceries.
“Why are we monitoring it?” Tidwell wondered. “Why aren’t we doing something?”
Tidwell knew about the hungry in Fort Smith. She co-founded Antioch for Youth and Family, which includes a food pantry as well as youth development programs focusing on academics and the arts. As a retired nurse, she knew medication and medical bills absorbed many retirees’ incomes, leaving little money to buy food. She also knew many hospital visits could be deterred with proper nutrition.
She stepped into the gap.
In 2009, Tidwell began the Senior Citizen Delivery Food program. Now, she finds herself the face of battling hunger in Arkansas as she provides food for 7,000 families a month through Antioch. Though she receives donations and small grants, Tidwell uses about 50 percent of her pension from more than 30 years of nursing to feed the hungry.
“She’s just unreal … I can’t say enough good things about her,” said Robert Miller, a Fort Smith businessman who allows Tidwell to use a building he purchased for the pantry. “I don’t know of another agency that touches as many lives as she does with so little money.”
Ken Kupchick, director of marketing and development with the River Valley Regional Food Bank, described Tidwell as the intersection of passion and tenacity. “To imply to Charolette that something cannot be done is the first step in achieving it,” he said. “When Charolette supports a family’s food budget, she’s helping them pay rent, clothe their children, put gas into the car they drive to work, take their sick child or ailing senior parent to a clinic for help and supplement their family meals with other healthy foods.” Many people in Arkansas go hungry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.” The state had a household food insecurity rate of 19.9 percent, the highest in the nation, from 2012 to 2014, according to the USDA. The national average was 14 percent in 2014.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services has noted that 40 percent of Arkansas residents age 60 years or older live with food insecurity. Like the household rate of food insecurity, the rate for this age group ranks highest in the nation. “Charolette is determined to tackle Fort Smith food insecurity and I believe she has only begun the fight,” Kupchick said. “The work she has done has already captured national notoriety.” Tidwell has testified before the National Commission on Hunger, a 10-member congressional panel, and before Feeding America. “I’m not going to stop until everyone hears the drum that ‘one can help one,’” Tidwell said. For Tidwell, statistics melt into individual faces – white, black, Hispanic and Asian – as she delivers sustenance to the elderly and bags food for those who daily visit her food pantry. She saw them when she handed out 1,004 turkeys and food at Thanksgiving and still was 250 turkeys short.
And she knows another statistic. Seventy percent of students in Fort Smith are on free or reduced lunches. Without help, many of those students go hungry.
“As many people as I feed, I don’t touch the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “Hunger in the surrounding area of Fort Smith is at a crisis level.” The loss of manufacturing jobs and the lack of other positions with benefits have made life difficult for families in Fort Smith and surrounding areas,
“I can see a problem of despair and a loss of hope in the community,” she said.
Kupchick said Tidwell does more than feed people.
“Charolette doesn’t feed, she nurtures,” he said. “She recognizes that hope is as important as food.”
That hope and belief in self began early for Tidwell, who was born the sixth of 10 children. “We didn’t know we were poor,” she said. “My mom and dad never spoke it. Our community never spoke it.”
A 1-acre garden next to their house and neighbors helped out in lean times.
“It was a community. Nobody would let people be hungry,” she said.
Tidwell saw other examples of generosity as she attended St. John’s Catholic School and watched the nuns serve others.
“At school, at church, at home, I was surrounded by community support,” she said. “It was bred in me. From the time I knew myself, it was a part of me.”
Tidwell said her mother wanted to be a nurse, but found it impossible with 10 children. Instead, when she heard of someone sick, she would head over to that person’s home to make a pot of soup or to clean a house.
“She said I’d cry to follow her. I was the only kid who’d do that,” Tidwell said. “Nursing has always been my calling. I was born to be a nurse.”
After high school, Tidwell enrolled at St. Edward Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. But the summer after she started, she married Lawrence Tidwell. She left St. Edward because, at that time, married students were not allowed to study to become nurses. A few years later when Sparks Hospital School of Nursing opened its program to married students, Tidwell transferred to its program and completed her studies.
“When I graduated I went on an education blitz,” she said with a laugh.
And she did it all while continuing to work as a nurse.
She earned her certificate in psychiatric nurse technology from Westark Community College in 1974. Her quest for knowledge included two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from institutions of higher learning in the state. In 1988, she returned to Westark Community College to work as a clinical instructor in nursing for two years while maintaining a management nursing position at Sparks Regional Medical Center.
“I was always born to be a nurse. I wish that I could do it now, but what I do now reaches a broader sector of people,” she said.
On a winter morning, she and her volunteers prepared to take food to part of that sector – residents living at Gorman Towers in Fort Smith. In a relay line working to the hum of industrial freezers and refrigerators, volunteers hefted two brown paper bags, each filled with 40 pounds of food, turned and handed them to the next person in line until the bags reached a cavernous silver trailer. Tidwell loaded bags of frozen sausage patties and chicken as well as fruit bags and salad mixes into coolers for the trip across town.
At Gorman, the residents would receive fruit and vegetables, meat, cereal or pasta, and on this day, a voucher for a gallon of milk from a local grocery store. Other times dairy could be powdered milk or eggs. Residents began gathering in the large day room as Tidwell and the volunteers unloaded two trailers of food.
Gene Landolt, a resident at Gorman, said he looks forward to Tidwell’s visit each month.
“It helps out a lot of people, including myself,” he said. “It helps supplement my food.”
As volunteers distributed the bags, placing many in wheeled carts, Kay Williams said she was thankful for the volunteers and Tidwell.
“Without this I’d not be able to make it month to month,” she said.
Gloria Perkins, whose corneas are clouded with Fuchs’ dystrophy, can no longer drive to the store from Gorman Towers.
“It means everything to me,” she said of the food delivery. “I have my Meals on Wheels and I have my food from Antioch.”
Tidwell distributed hugs almost as liberally as she handed out food and milk vouchers.
“The elderly are very private,” she said. “You have to win their confidence to show them that what you are doing is meant to help supplement with nutritious food to help increase their independence and stretch their very limited incomes.”
Back at the two-story brick building that houses the food pantry, Tidwell talks of her plans for a community garden that encompasses a city block. She worked one before for three years, but it became too much. Fort Smith’s Northside High School built raised beds in fall 2015, and the garden will come to life again in the spring. Schoolchildren will be involved in planting and working the soil as an educational space. And, in turn, Tidwell will have fresh fruit and vegetables that she can pass on to others.
“Community is caring, compassion and helping,” she said. “You can’t tell me you care if you’re not helping.”