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When Bob Gager began The Shepherd’s Heart as a food pantry to help those in need in 2010, little did he realize in a little more than a decade it would become the largest faith-based food pantry in Central Texas.
The Shepherd’s Heart provides 250,000 pounds of food every month to people in need of food. Gager, executive director of the nonprofit, said it helped almost 25,000 families in the first four months of this year. It took nine months last year to reach that same number.
The Shepherd’s Heart also delivers groceries twice a month to 1,100 seniors and serves about 3,000 students at six area schools.
“Everything we’ve touched turned Texas-sized,” he said, only half-jokingly.
Since October, it has operated out of a building at 205 S. 26th St. The nonprofit recently closed on the building, which offers considerably more space than its previous spot on 34th Street.
That location was the pantry site and long lines of people would come to get the food available. It has evolved from that solitary spot to doing mobile distribution at 17 sites around the city. A group of volunteers help the distribution sites run smoothly.
Gager tries to be on site for those mobile distributions, He tries to be at the distributions and visit with people there, encouraging them to feel comfortable even though many feel ill at ease having to collect food they can otherwise no afford. He draws upon his own experiences growing up in poverty in Chicago.
“I want there to be no stigma about getting food,” he said. “Many are there for the first time. They often are women with kids, working two jobs, with bills to pay and they just need food. We want to let them know, ‘We’ve got you.’”
Nonprofit agencies, such as Friends for Life, also are able to shop at the pantry location for food to give to their clients.
Gager spends much of his time keeping track of the food coming and working ahead to allow for packaging the food headed to the sites.
At Christmastime, the Shepherd’s Heart provided a large bag of toys to each child that had a need, he said. An upper floor in the building was utilized to help with that collection.
The pandemic forced the nonprofit to stop offering its Empowerment School designed to help people pull of poverty, but he’s hopeful a partnership with McLennan Community College or individuals could reignite that program.
The nonprofit also has Things from the Heart Resale Shop, which has sells donated clothing. The store began after people would drop off clothing at the pantry and Gager saw a way to sell those donations in order to buy food for the pantry.
But the donations and sales grew to the point that today the income from the resale shop pays for four jobs at the store and 10 jobs at The Shepherd’s Heart, he said.
Gager hopes to eventually expand to rural communities, where people have fewer resources than in the city.
The Shepherd’s Heart had a creative initiative during May, with an effort to provide more kid-friendly food for the summer months. The “Be a Hunger Hero” drive has nearly 30 businesses in a competition to donate funds for purchasing that food. The winning business will earn a trophy to display.
Gager said he feels humbled to be able to use his entrepreneurial skills to help others during their challenging times.
“My relationship with God is why I do what I’m doing,” he said. “This is payback time for me.”