Every Friday night you can find Karie and Travis Whittle in the same place on Iron Bridge Road – doing their jobs, not their paying jobs mind you – but the jobs they are sure is their mission in life.
You see, they operate the newly designated Chesterfield Food Bank, part of the First Fruits Foundation. The Chesterfield Food Bank opens its doors every Friday afternoon to help feed the needy in the Chester and Chesterfield area. People in need are welcome to come once a month to receive a week’s worth of groceries. They feed seniors starting at 5 p.m. on
Fridays and non-seniors at 6:30 p.m. The lines for the later feedings begin backing up into the parking lot early.
And you may ask how did this grassroots organization take off right in our backyards?
The Gathering Ground saw a need in the community to serve. The group began at 12211 Iron Bridge Road in Chester in a small office, after seeing a very diverse need in the community. “It was all God,” said Travis Whittle. “He spoke to me and told me what we needed to do.”
The original need to feed was Karie Whittle’s idea, though. She said she would hear people in their church lament needing food, a very simple request. “I dreamt of starting a can drive in our garage,” Karie said. “Every week they would ask for that basic need in church and people would pray but that wasn’t feeding them.”
Needing to reach out and help, the Whittles began this journey to help others. Travis preaches a little gospel and reaches a diverse population that might not otherwise attend a church. And, their goal is to help those who fall through the cracks – those who make a little bit too much money to qualify for food assistance and those who might not go to another church because they don’t fit in somewhere else.
And, the Whittles understand what can happen. They’ve known the desperation of the struggle. They have lived through what this struggle is. Travis and Karie started out in minimum wage jobs and went once to ask for assistance for food. They were themselves turned away for making just a little bit too much money. Their philosophy is that no one should need to be turned away for the basic need – food.
Around that same time the Whittles applied for food assistance, Travis was laid off. This caused him to begin to experience depression and anxiety. “The panic attacks were the worst,” he said. “I had a nervous breakdown.” That’s when he considered ending his life; it was a very dark time.
God spoke to Travis and told him that he “needed to do more with his life, he had a mission.” Travis, a hometown boy from Chester, didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
So, he pursued his own business and was successful. He said he feels that “God helped me through the dark times.” He needed to pay if forward -– needed to return the goodness God had bestowed on him and his family.
The Gathering Grounds and First Fruits Foundation just sprang up from this need to give back because God had helped the Whittles.
So, in 2010, four short years ago, the Whittles and a group of business owners decided “to give a hand up, not a handout to the people of the community who make too much money to quality for other assistance programs but not enough to survive,” Travis remembers.
The organization grew from first feeding only about 15 families a week to now providing as many as 400,000 meals. They feed between 250 and 500 folks each week. Travis said, “We just did what we had to do for the community.” The Chesterfield and Colonial Heights Department of Social Services often sends folks to them who they can’t help. They might make slightly too much money to qualify or they might be waiting for benefits to begin.
But, every Friday the line is through the parking lot and out to the road on the large property that used to be an old gym. The people stand into the dark and cold to have the opportunity to receive the week’s worth of food. Karie said, “I had no clue that this could ever be this big.” She is in awe of the need and the people that come each week.
“We try not to turn anyone away,” Travis shared, yet those helped should live in the county. On one Friday night, a senior woman rode up in her car and told Travis that she lived in Chesterfield but that she was turned away because her zip code wasn’t in Chesterfield. Travis leaned into the car and said, “Come on in, we’ll get this straight.”
That’s his attitude, one of nurturing assurance that everyone deserves to be helped. As she started into the building she said, “I was a waitress at Sibley’s and I used to serve Travis.”
And, now he helps feed her. He helped her out of her car and inside to get registered with her license, and then he took her over to where a volunteer waited with a basket including chicken and breads and fresh vegetables and potatoes.
A volunteer helps each person that comes in to their vehicle and loads their groceries, sometimes sharing a hug of encouragement before waving them on their way. “We give them food for their bodies and spiritual food to send them out,” Travis shared.
As a result of the popularity of the food group, First Fruits Foundation joined with Feed More and the Central Virginia Food Bank to help feed even more of those in need. “We are so grateful for this affiliation,” Travis said. He wanted everyone to know that because of Feed More the Gathering Grounds can feed so many more people, and for that they are grateful.
“It’s them donating food,” he said. But, many businesses have helped bring the food program to what it is today. Kim Hill, Vice President of the First Fruits Foundation, became involved about a year ago. She left her job to volunteer full time and hasn’t looked back. “It changed my life to know we are helping everyone we can and to let them know that God loves them and that their needs are going to be met,” she shared.
Besides providing food to those in need, Gathering Grounds helps by referring folks to job services, education programs and job opportunities. The goal is to give the help that is needed most in the community.
When asked what his wish list for the future of the food program would be, Travis smiled eagerly and named off a list of things he’d like to see happen. He was quick to say “more community involvement.”
The big building where the group is housed is provided by Mrs. Allen, a long time resident of Chester, who saw the work they were doing and financed it for the group. But, it doesn’t have heating and air conditioning. There are plumbing needs too. “We need carpenters and tradesman to help us fix the place up,” Travis said. “So we can help more people than we are today.”
During this season of giving and gratitude, Travis reminds people “that $25 is a full week of dinners for someone in need.” Everyone deserves food. He hopes the community will come together. “We need the community to help serve not just one time but all year,” he said.
He would like to see the 501(c) 3 nonprofit include a job resource center, and a senior center, and so much more. Right now, he needs volunteers of all kinds to load groceries or fix the heat during the cold winter.
He reminds everyone that there is so much need out there. “We need volunteers so we can do so much more,” he asked. “Please help us.”
To volunteer time or to give funds to this cause, they can be reached at www.chesterfieldfoodbank.org  or call (804) 414-8885. To mail a donation, send to First Fruits Foundation, P.O. Box 2729 Chester, VA 23831.