CABOT, Ark. — The pandemic has made things tough all over, sending many to food pantries and aid agencies. It is especially true for military veterans even after living lives conditioned to overcome obstacles while part of a highly regimented team.
A food pantry in Cabot is working to help those vets by reaching them in a way they can understand.
"I'm a veteran and all my volunteers my whole staff are veterans, and we're just veterans helping veterans," said Deyonka Hickey, the CEO of Feed The Veterans of Cabot.
Hickey knows from personal experience why veterans need a pantry specifically for them. She explains while stacking and turning cans of beans and peas on a shelf so they are all facing forward and orderly stacked.
"I was in supply in the military, and so everything has to be faced," says the Air Force vet and retired employee at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
"It drives me nuts, and all the volunteers know it," she says while twisting and stacking. "They're like 'oh you better get that straightened up before Deyonka gets here. She's gonna go crazy.'"
Hickey thrives on that military precision and knows her clients appreciate the attention to detail. It's another part of how her personal experience led her to this mission.
"I got out of the military. I was a single parent, and we transitioned into the civilian world and I came up short one month," she said describing her time in Ohio when she ended up in the parking lot of a church with a pantry run by the wife of a chief at the nearby base.
"You know, I sat out in the parking lot and I cried because I didn't want to have to go into this. You know, I just got out of the military," she said.
The woman knew just what to say to Hickey, and ever since, Hickey has approached helping vets the same way. That includes joining with other members of local service organizations to launch the pantry out of a storage unit in 2017.
That first weekend, the group helped three families. They've moved three times since, opening once a month, and now they dole out groceries and personal items by the ton.
"This past Saturday, we had 47 veterans come in and we gave out over 2,000 pounds of food," Hickey said.
A familiarity with military life is key, and it informs who Hickey hires and keeps around on the days she turns the clubhouse/office into a grocery store. Instead of sale banners, there are flags, emblems and old recruiting posters from the different branches.
"We have one volunteer [who] all he does, is he socializes," said Hickey, of the person who keeps things light on days when clients arrive with heavy burdens. "He don't do any work. He socializes. And that's really okay."
Feed the Veterans is part of the Arkansas Food Bank network. That along with donations from all around help fill the shelves. It gives Hickey and her team more time for spirit raising instead of fund raising, and more time offering loving arms for comrades in arms.
"These are my veterans and I want to make sure that they feel comfortable coming so they'll come back if they need to," she said.