When Maricopa Pantry burned to the ground March 28, Jim Shoaf and his wife, Alice, saw two decades of hard work go up in smoke.
Jim, the president and founder of the food bank, didn’t take any time to lick his wounds.
“It was terrible watching it burn, it really was, because that’s 20 years of our life,” Shoaf said. “But what was devastating was that we weren’t going to be able to feed the people these next couple of weeks ‘til we got this fixed.”
For Shoaf and the 35-40 volunteers at the Pantry, the sole mission is service.
“I have a good crew,” Shoaf said. “They think about the people. And that’s what makes this work.”
Shoaf isn’t a man encumbered by obstacles. He seems to find a way. Immediately after the fire, he and his crew took care of the 20 families who most needed the food bank’s services, mostly people confined to their homes.
So, without a place to call home, volunteers delivered food to those homes while retooling for the future.
In the aftermath of the fire that destroyed trailers and equipment, at least 40,000 pounds of rotting food covered the grounds, which attracted a swarm of flies.
“You know the flies are incredible right now,” Shoaf said a few weeks ago on the day they sprayed. “It’s insane. If you sit on the porch of the church, you’re going to see little baby flies everywhere.”
Exterminating the flies was only the start of the efforts to rebuild. The cleanup was well underway at that point, and a few weeks after the fire, Maricopa Pantry was again holding food bank events.
Soon, there was a different kind of swarm at the site, one of trucks removing debris from the fire and trailers taking steel to be recycled, preparing the site for something bigger.
“We’ve been hauling out steel,” Shoaf said. “We’ve been hauling out all the trash and it’s going to be a couple of days before we have that emptied. Then, we’re going to treat the ground because of what was spilled.”
Patience is needed — all around
Shoaf is a practitioner in the fine art of impatience.
“I don’t like to take time doing things,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to do it, do it.”
Shoaf was ready to start rebuilding the Maricopa Pantry the day after the fire. But as he pointed out, it’s going to be a step-by-step process. The fire occurred on March 28. Shoaf said he received approval to clean up the site on April 7.
After the cleanup, the planning process begins to build a new structure.
“We’re going to start looking at what we need to put the building up. And then we’re going to start construction on the building.”
Shoaf hopes for an October start on construction and to have the building complete by the end of winter.
“But, you know, we have to get designs,” Shoaf said. “We have to figure out what we want. We’ve got to get everything OK’d by the county. We must get permits and I want everything in place, so that once we decide to actually start construction, everything’s in place.”
For Shoaf, being patient with the process is as difficult as having patience with himself. The community’s response has been overwhelming.
“I feel bad, but I can’t answer everybody’s phone calls and everybody’s texts and there’s a lot of people I couldn’t get back to, but there’s no way. I mean, my phone’s been ringing off the hook. I don’t know how many emails I’ve gotten how many messages I’ve gotten, and I just can’t get to them.”
For Shoaf, when a door closes, a window opens. People from Maricopa and the county are ready to lend a hand.
“There’s tons of momentum coming from the community,” Shoaf said. “We’ve had so many people step forward monetarily, offering their time, their muscle, and their equipment. You know, this city has reached out in more ways than I could think of reaching out. I mean every one of our needs are being met. You know, if I need help down at the church, I’ve got more than I need.”
Shoaf is confident that energy will lead to a bigger and better Maricopa Pantry.
“This time, we’re going to rebuild differently,” Shoaf said. “We’re looking at a warehouse because that was always one of my dreams. I always wanted to put up a warehouse, a food bank, a clothes bank, a soup kitchen that’s open every day of the week so people can come in and get breakfast.”
Shoaf said he’d considered moving the food bank to another site, but the costs were too high and five or six years down the road a renovation would be necessary.
“Since this happened, we decided that now the doors are open,” Shoaf said. “Let’s just build what we want, rather than buy all those trailers again. Let’s just build what we want, and it’ll be more cost-effective. It’ll be easier on the food. You know, it’ll be easier to build the boxes.
A blessing during a disaster
The Maricopa Pantry sits next to Mountain View Community Church. The two structures are close enough to one another to have caused concern during the fire.
“You know, it’s funny because we sat there and watched the fire go up,” Shoaf said. “And there was just no stopping that. We had so much stuff burning, plus, all my units were diesel units. So, every one of them had a full tank of diesel. So once the diesel caught fire, there was just no stopping it.
“But to watch the fire, I mean, the winds were coming from the south and the fire was really up over top of the church. We were afraid the church was going to catch on fire. Some of the bushes in the back did and we got that put out and then, it was like the wind totally shifted.
“It came from the north and pushed to the south and the flames went the other direction and church was saved.”
Keeping in touch
For the past few weeks, the site of Maricopa Pantry has been a beehive of activity, with cleanup of the fire damage and the ongoing work of continuing to provide for the nearly 1,200 families the organization feeds each week.
Shoaf may not be able to answer each call he receives but urges the public to check out the group’s website and Facebook page for announcements about upcoming events and for updates about what the project needs to move forward.
“Some people may want to hold a food drive for us,” Shoaf said. “Before they do that, I need to make sure that we have a way to store that food. We have always taken great pride in not wasting anything. We make sure that every donation goes to someone in need.”
This story was first published in the May edition of InMaricopa magazine.