A few weeks back, Brian Gillespie and a small group of SERVE volunteers stood outside Shopper’s Food Warehouse collecting donations for the organization’s Stuff the Truck promotion when a disheveled man walked up.
“I was reluctant to give him a slip of paper, not wanting him to feel pressured to donate,” Gillespie said. “As he went into the store, I thought that I need to get his name to see if he needs some help.”
About 45 minutes later, the man walked out with a cart overflowing with groceries. He picked up a small plastic bag from the cart that Gillespie reached out to take.
“No, this bag is mine – the cart is for you,” the man said. It was just a few years ago that the man found himself in a tough situation and needed help. Now that he was in a better situation, he wanted to give back.
“That one sticks with me,” said Gillespie, a U.S. Army veteran and former defense industry executive who was hired as SERVE’s executive director in September.
In just a few months on the job, Gillespie has dozens of similar stories to tell — about the man who volunteers to drive meals each month to those homebound because of COVID-19, or the gratitude people show not only because they are receiving help but because they know someone cares.
Most people know SERVE – or Stafford Emergency Relief through Volunteer Efforts – for its food pantry, but its reach goes far beyond that. SERVE offers a wide range of services, including working with utility companies to reduce a person’s bill, partnering with a local healthcare provider for discounted or free prescriptions, or giving those in need a gift card to put gas in their car. There’s even a SERVE program that provides pet food.
All of this is possible because of community donations, volunteers and partnerships with dozens of businesses, other nonprofits and houses of worship.
The mission, Gillespie said, goes beyond helping those in immediate need. SERVE wants to help them become more self-sufficient. When a person walks into the office, the staff helps connect them with services from the Stafford County government, along with their offerings.
“We try to give people hope,” Gillespie said.
Helping During a Trying Time
Gillespie took over at SERVE during a difficult time both for the organization and the community.
Mike Elliott, the previous executive director, passed away in early August.
And the pandemic has dramatically hurt many Stafford families — some who caught the virus, others who cared for them and still more who lost work due to the economic turndown.
Gillespie said the COVID-19 impact has been twofold: More people in the community do need help, but there are also more people willing to help. His message to the community is clear: SERVE is open and ready to help those in need.
As the new head of the organization, Gillespie wants to increase awareness throughout the community about the services it offers. To do this, he’s planning to incorporate more social media communication, improve the organization’s website and increase connections with local houses of worship.
These efforts, he hopes, will reach people on the edges of society – those without reliable transportation or living in the harder to reach parts of the county.
“We want them to know that there is someone out there to help,” he said.
Volunteering and community service have always been a part of Gillespie’s life. He volunteered with the Boy Scouts for more than 25 years and has been an active member of his church. He has looked for charitable and community causes to help, something that his mother instilled in him from a young age.
“There is a beautiful saying that goes, ‘The best portion of a good man’s life are his little, unremembered acts of love and kindness,’” Gillespie said. “I think about that and would love those words on my grave because there is a real truth to it.”
David Stegon is a free-lance writer who lives in Stafford County.