Don’t look for a blessing, be one. It’s a phrase Gary Swearingen tries to live by, taking a hands-on approach to helping out his community through a December citywide food drive.
“We do it in December because we feel the giving spirit is higher then,” Swearingen says. Despite the snow, rain or ice, the 39-year-old coordinates 250 volunteers to hit up 15,000 houses to collect food for the area’s needy.
Swearingen took over as the chairman of the committee responsible for the Mattoon Rotary Food Drive about 12 years ago. Each year, the drive collects about 20,000 pounds of food for the Mattoon Community Food Center.
The three-person committee starts planning for the event in July. Along with recruiting and coordinating volunteers, Swearingen helps solicit corporate donations. In the past, groups such as Innovative Staffing Services and Wal-Mart have been major donors, as well as Swearingen’s Wells Fargo office, which donated $3,000 last year.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than giving back,” Swearingen says, noting that he hopes his two daughters, 11-year-old Kyra and 7-year-old Ella, learn from his example. On the day of the food drive, Swearingen serves as a captain of a team of 11 volunteers (including his two young daughters), which goes door-to-door collecting committed donations and soliciting new ones.
Charleston averages below freezing temperatures in December, but “we’ve never had to cancel because of the weather,” Swearingen says. In fact, when folks are snowed in, “everyone stays home and it’s better for donations.”
The 20,000 pounds of food collected generally lasts the Mattoon Food Bank about a month or two. “It’ll go between one to two months and then it’s gone. It tells you the need we have.”
This year Swearingen is also running in an eight-mile race to raise $5,000 for the Mattoon Food Pantry. He hopes to put the money raised toward the organization’s endowment, which will reach about $20,000 if Swearingen is successful.
“Out of all my activities, the food pantry is the one I’m most passionate about,” Swearingen says.