FORT SMITH, Ark. — If giving of yourself and staying productive keep you young, Charolette Tidwell of Fort Smith is standing at the fountain of youth.
Since 1999 she hasn’t taken a day off of work. Her work is feeding the hungry on her own time, and on her own dime.
Before that, Tidwell worked as a nurse for more than 40 years, and that experience fueled her future passion for feeding the hungry.
“I saw the ravages of poor nutrition, in children and middle aged people and senior citizens,” Tidwell said. “And I believe that good nutrition is the basic foundation of good life.”
Following her retirement from the medical field, she watched an elderly woman at a grocery store purchase cat food for herself, unable to afford any other protein.
That scene sparked something in Tidwell, who started to look at the numbers and discovered that her neighbors in Fort Smith were among the most food insecure in the entire country. According to the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, the state ranks highest in the nation for food insecurity, where nearly one out of five Arkansans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
“I knew I had to do something about that,” she said.
Tidwell started Antioch for Youth and Families, and she herself is the main funder of the organization, though she would rather not tell anyone that. It consists of a food pantry, which is open almost every day, a mobile senior pantry, a student-involved community garden, and a youth development program. In all, Antioch serves food to approximately 7,000 people a month.
“Ms. Tidwell’s mission to feed those in need amounted to about 700,000 pounds of food in 2014,” said Ken Kupchick, Director of Marketing and Development at the River Valley Regional Food Bank in Fort Smith. Kupchick expects that the number for 2015 was closer to one million pounds of food given to the hungry.
Tidwell has also begun organizing and sources the food for mass food distributions at a park situated in one of the poorest areas of Fort Smith. In the searing summer of 2015, hundreds of families lined up for Antioch in the Park, one-day distribution events held in June, July, and August. Summer can be a challenging time for families who rely on free lunch programs at school for nine months out of the year. Thanksgiving is another difficult time, with school out for a week, on top of the fact that state food benefits begin running low in the later part of each month, and the additional costs associated with Christmas right around the corner.
“We thought we might help them in terms of more than just the turkey and stuffing, but things that can go on the shelf for the next couple of weeks,” Tidwell explained.
More than 2,500 people received food sourced and distributed by her the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Tidwell said she plans to prepare for 4,000 this coming Thanksgiving.
“It’s not just feeding people, it’s making sure that families sit down around a table and understand what it is to come together as a family and celebrate a holiday,” Kupchick explained.
Tidwell also spends every holiday, including her birthday, delivering gift bags of personal hygiene items and fresh fruit to homebound senior citizens and those in nursing homes, Kupchick said.
“She’s a saint that walks among us. Without a doubt.”