On a plane from Peru, Rita Chauca looked out her window and saw a better life for her family in the United States.
Four years later, what Chauca, 39, has found is the basement of her sister's townhouse, a $400-a-week job -- when she's lucky -- and the benevolence of strangers in a dilapidated, red, barnlike building in downtown Leesburg.
Those strangers operate Loudoun Interfaith Relief Inc., the county's largest food pantry, which, in trying to serve a rapidly growing population in need, is spilling out of its doors.
"When it's busy, too much people," said Chauca, who typically comes to the center twice a month for three days' worth of groceries. "I can only pick up one time" that month. For the part-time nanny, who shares those groceries with nine relatives in their three-bedroom townhouse, that's quite a sacrifice.
In America's fastest-growing county, some residents find it increasingly difficult to keep up, and Interfaith Relief workers have met many of them. Whether they're recently laid-off workers or retirees who have been struggling for a long time, they've doubled the center's intake in the last year, giving urgency to the hunt for a larger location.
Interfaith volunteers doled out almost 298,000 pounds of groceries to 18,117 people last year. This year, by the end of May, they had given more than 658,000 pounds to 34,084 people. In August 2003, the center enrolled 50 new families. This July, it enrolled 102. Employees say they'll often sign up five new families a day.
"We will give away a million pounds of food this year," an unprecedented amount, said Barbara Notar, president of Interfaith's board of directors. "And we could feed more people if we had a bigger place."
On its busiest days each week, "there's standing room only," said Duffy Sanchez, the center's acting executive director after her predecessor unexpectedly left this summer, citing personal reasons. "There are a good 10 families trying to register at one time. Some were waiting on the porch. Some were waiting in cars."
Those long lines are no surprise to anyone tracking Loudoun County's spiraling growth. Its population grew almost 31 percent from the 2000 Census to 2003, and those new people meant that 29 percent more housing units were built in 2003 than in 2000. But the county's Department of Social Services said only 5 percent of those new homes are affordable to households that make less than $42,000 annually -- which will make up an estimated quarter of the county's population in 2005.
Already, the department said, households need to earn almost $200,000 a year to afford a single-family home in Loudoun, $117,000 to afford a townhouse and $46,000, or $22.06 an hour, to rent a two-bedroom apartment, not including utilities. But more than 3,000 families bring home only about half that hourly wage -- often at newly planted shopping centers and big chain retailers whose jobs lure them here in the first place.
"More people are working in the community but really cannot afford to live in the community," said Joyce Wright, an emergency services social worker at Loudoun's Department of Social Services, who refers almost every client to Interfaith Relief. "If you're a single mom being paid $9 or $10 an hour here, you're not going to make it."
Sanchez sees more than single moms maneuvering onto Interfaith Relief's gravel lot, tucked behind an old King Street shopping center. There are the elderly and the immigrants. The college-educated who got pink slips, and manual-labor workers who injured limbs in accidents. Residents with health problems and physical challenges, and families who've been raised under a legacy of poverty.
They arrive by beat-up old cars and brand-new SUVs, by bus and bicycle, and once in a while on foot. They leave with plastic bags bulging with bread, milk, canned peas, sausage, cereal, toilet paper and baby food, so they can put grocery money toward rent instead.
"This makes it so you just don't feel" the hunger, said a Leesburg mother and 29-year county resident of Interfaith's weekly food program, who wouldn't give her name. Through tears, she told of her 52-year-old husband's layoff last year and their inability to scrape together enough to pay the bills. "Sometimes we bring in $1,500 a month. Our mortgage is $1,800 a month. You do the math."
Interfaith Relief is looking at its own numbers for expansion plans and finding the same situation as that of their clients so far: a limited budget vying with a dramatically more expensive county.
The center partnered with nine private social service groups last year to open Loudoun Cares, an umbrella organization seeking to buy or rent a campus where they could share costs for such things as a receptionist, photocopiers and phones.
"The commercial price is just jaw-dropping," said Andy Johnston, executive director of Loudoun Cares, which raised roughly $65,000 and operates out of donated space at Loudoun Hospital's Cornwall Street campus in Leesburg. "I am an optimist banking on the good will of probably a variety of people in this community."
More than 120 multi-tenant nonprofit centers already exist around the country, from 15 acres in Menasha, Wisc., to a building in Charleston, W. Va. Closer to home, the Our Health program combines seven health-related nonprofits in a new $3.5 million, 22,000-square-foot building complex in Winchester.
"Just because it's hard doesn't mean it can't be done," said Laura MacLaurin, a former Interfaith Relief executive director who helped spark the campus idea. "If somebody gave us enough square footage, maybe it's not exactly what we're looking for, but we've got to start somewhere."
Today, Interfaith Relief's back room looks like a cramped grocery mart, walled with floor-to-ceiling refrigerators and freezers, and rows upon rows of store goods, including such disparate items as Quaker Oats instant grits, Thai Kitchen yellow curry, pickles, pina colada mix, corn, couscous, cantaloupes, and even deodorant and weight loss pills.
Dozens of volunteers shuffle from shelf to shelf to a single oval table in the middle of the room where they organize the food. They instinctively grab and bag products that fit into the recommended intake of meats, starches, vegetables and dairy that makes up three breakfasts, lunches, dinners and desserts.
A long, thin warehouse a dozen yards behind the building houses most of the thousands of pounds of donated goods that employees collect in two vans from six grocery stores each day.
But Sanchez envisions one massive area that doubles as prep room and warehouse, sheltering dozens more shelves and at least three new freezers able to hold an estimated 3,000 more pounds of goods.
"When I open up in the morning, I'll have more at my fingertips," Sanchez said. "We do deplete. Every day."
Chauca's mind isn't on the behind-the-scenes scrambling. She thinks about her husband, a carpenter by day and cook by evening, and two kids, 11 and 13.
"I have children at home," she said, "and they open the refrigerator and say, 'Mommy, I'm hungry.' "
She said she thinks about how she has something to give them now.