By Nancy Lindsey
Van Rowe of Patrick Springs, who operates three charities to help poor, elderly and disabled people, told the Patrick County Board of Supervisors Monday night that he had been ordered to vacate the building he has been using as a soup kitchen for more than a year.
Speaking with obvious emotion and anger, Rowe said he had just received that day a memo from the recreation committee telling him that the soup kitchen would have to be moved out of the community building at the Patrick Springs Park before Sept. 1.
The committee had voted unanimously to take that action, according to the memo read by Rowe, because a soup kitchen was not considered “an appropriate use of the facility.”
Rowe said he and his volunteers have made soup to feed the hungry and distributed it to the homes of those who couldn’t drive to the site. “Now this body wishes to shut the operation down,” he said.
After a heated discussion between Rowe and the supervisors, the board passed a motion by Mayo River District Supervisor Lock Boyce that the date for vacating the building be moved to Oct. 1 and that copies of the minutes of the Patrick County Recreation Commission, the Patrick Springs Recreation Committee, and the Patrick Springs Ruritan Club be made available.
Rowe told of the many people who had helped fill the soup kitchen’s needs, of trucks full of food showing up when he was despairing of continuing the ministry, of a freezer full of beef from cattle farmers and pheasants donated by Primland, and of the Patrick County Retired Teachers Association holding a food drive that generated three truckloads of food.
Rowe also operates the Jesus House, a clothing ministry housed in the former Jaycee Building in Stuart, and a food pantry in the Patrick Springs Pentecostal Holiness Church. Volunteers have been just as dedicated to those charities as to the soup kitchen, he said.
He said he had been told by others who run food ministries that he couldn’t keep the kitchen open five days a week.
“I said, ‘people have to eat five days a week’ and also told them, ‘my God will provide,’” Rowe said.
He recalled a large family—two parents and six kids ranging from nine months to nine years—coming to the Jesus House and getting 154 articles of clothing. In three years, he said, 85,000 pieces of clothing have been distributed.
“I do all within my power to help the people of Patrick County,” Rowe said. ”We are on the same team and trying to help the same people.
“But there is a difference in doing good works and working for God,” he said. “I think you’re walking on very thin ice.”
Rowe said the athletic field at the Patrick Springs field sits idle most of the time, and that the building was “filthy” when he got permission to use it and he had his team give it a good cleaning. Essentials such as a meat thermometer and a fire extinguisher had to be provided, he said.
Rowe also teaches members of the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) which trains for coping with potential disasters.
Patrick County could experience a disaster if a storm like Hurricane Katrina hit the coast and people were evacuated to this area, Rowe said.
“They could arrive on your doorstep,” he told the board. “How are you going to feed them and clothe them? Please reconsider this letter today, and let me get on with the business of helping the needy, with God’s guidance.”
County Administrator Tom Rose, who signed the letter, said it appeared that the community was unable to use the facility, leading to the committee’s decision.
Peters Creek District Supervisor Rickie Fulcher, whose district includes Patrick Springs, said he attended the recent committee meeting as a supervisor, and that Blue Ridge District Supervisor Karl Weiss attended as the supervisors’ recreation liaison.
The Ruritan Club voted last month to turn over the building to the county, Fulcher said, and one of their concerns was that the soup kitchen had locked cabinets and freezers, and put up signs telling visitors not to use certain items.
The facility can’t adequately serve the public for events such as family reunions if people don’t have access to the kitchen, Fulcher said.
Weiss commended Rowe for the work he is doing, but said the building and property were designed for recreational use, like other county parks.
“What you’re doing is wonderful,” Weiss said, “but it’s in the wrong place.”
Mayo River District Supervisor Lock Boyce asked Phillip Plaster how often people have wanted to hold family events at the building and been refused.
“The recreation folks keep up with that,” Plaster said.
“Patrick County owns the building and the funding comes from the general fund,” Boyce said. “He’s planning to serve 50 meals a week to people who don’t have enough to eat. They didn’t do anything wrong except get old and sick. You work to make sure they have at least one good meal a week, and now they want to throw you out.
“Is it because of the clothes they wear or the color of their skin?” Boyce said. “I think it’s despicable!”
In reference to Rowe’s remark that the local media could help explain the situation to the public, Boyce said, “You have more faith in the newspaper and radio than I do.”
Boyce said he would help get Rowe his own freezer and padlock.
Smith River District Supervisor Crystal Harris asked Plaster why the Ruritans donated the property back to the county. Plaster said the club couldn’t afford to keep it up any more, but has invested many hours of time, labor and money in building it and upgrading the facility.
Harris said she had been told by two Ruritans that Rowe didn’t have permission to use the facility.
“There are some personnel issues,” Plaster said.
Dan River District Supervisor Roger Hayden, chairman, thanked Rowe for his service in helping the poor.
“I will not have a hand in closing a kitchen to help the needy,” he said. “I didn’t even know it existed until today.”
Hayden said the board didn’t have enough evidence to make a decision.
At that point Boyce made a motion to postpone any action on evicting the soup kitchen until October 1, and that the minutes of pertinent meetings be made available to all members in the meantime.
The decision must be made by a majority vote of the board of supervisors in open session, Boyce said.
Fulcher seconded the motion.
The vote was Harris, Hayden and Boyce in support, and Weiss and Fulcher in opposition.
Weiss said he thought the action was “a slap in the face” of citizens who serve on the board’s committees.
By Nancy Lindsey
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