Jim Butts says he has witnessed countless changes in the 44 years he has been volunteering for LINK, a nonprofit organization that delivers emergency food to families in Sterling, Herndon and Ashburn. One thing has not changed, however: Despite the prosperity that has come to the region, there are always people who don’t know where they will find their next meal.
Butts and other longtime volunteers have helped keep the faith-based group running for decades without any paid staff members. Hundreds of other volunteers — including businesses, church youth groups, Scouts and intellectually disabled students — join them every month to help combat hunger in Northern Virginia.
Butts, 74, a longtime Sterling resident who recently moved to Ashburn, has been volunteering for LINK since it started in 1972, when Sterling Park was new, and Ashburn was little more than a rural crossroads. The group began, he said, when five churches in Sterling and Herndon got together to prevent people from exploiting their goodwill.
“We used to call them ‘panhandlers,’ ” Butts said, referring to people who worked in the District, lived in West Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley, and hit churches up for cash and food while passing through. Church officials compared notes and found that the same people were visiting every church every week, he said.
“There was a real need there, but one of the needs was to separate need from greed,” Butts said.
By cross-checking, the five churches identified the people who were gaming the system. After taking a few months to assess and correct the situation, they began delivering emergency food, clothing, furniture and financial assistance to people who lived in the area, Butts said.
LINK has grown along with the area’s population, said Lisa Lombardozzi, the organization’s president. A dozen churches are represented on the board of directors, and several others are also involved. It takes about 200 volunteers a month to run the organization, she said.
LINK differs from other area food pantries in that it makes home deliveries, Lombardozzi said. Volunteers collect food from grocery stores, restaurants and schools and deliver it to people who have called in with a request.
Although the group doesn’t require proof of income or need, families are limited to four food deliveries a year, Lombardozzi said. Each one provides enough food to last about a week.
In 2012, LINK began offering a monthly mobile food pantry. The Capital Area Food Bank supplies the food — mostly fresh produce — and LINK distributes it on second Tuesdays in the parking lot of Christ the Redeemer Church in Sterling. About 170 to 220 families get food there each month, Lombardozzi said.
Most of them work but don’t make enough money to cover all of their expenses, said Bob Ashdown, a LINK volunteer for nearly 40 years.
Ashdown, 70, of Herndon, is LINK’s pantry manager, coordinating the flow of food donations to and from storage rooms at Herndon United Methodist Church and Christ the Redeemer.
Teams of young people and community groups sort, shelve and pack the food for delivery, he said, including intellectually disabled students from Dominion and Freedom high schools, who help with the sorting, he said.
“LINK is just an amazing machine,” said Betty Eidemiller of Herndon, a LINK volunteer for more than a decade. “There are so many cogs that turn, and they all just fit together and all these amazing things happen.”
Although Butts has had to scale back his involvement with LINK for health reasons, he maintains the nonprofit organization’s website from his home.
Butts said that he has tried to set an example for his three children and seven grandchildren through his volunteer work.
“I feel like not only am I helping someone, I’m teaching my family the value of service to the community,” he said.
“What they learn from me . . . is bound to spread my work even after I’m gone.”