HEFLIN — By word of mouth and by Facebook, area residents learned about a food giveaway at First United Methodist Church and showed up in force Tuesday morning to receive bags of free food.

It was the first United Way-funded event in Cleburne County in nearly a decade, but should be the first of many as the United Way of East Central Alabama returns to the county, said Shannon Jenkins, interim executive director of the chapter.

The United Way Food Bank in Birmingham provided between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds of food for the distribution event on Tuesday, he said.  

Matthew Wood, 78, of Heflin said he heard about the event from a friend.

“Groceries are so high,” Wood said. “My wife’s bad sick and we’re going back and forth to the hospital. ... It’ll help out on my grocery bill.”

The East Central Alabama chapter of the United Way serves Randolph and Calhoun counties. It used to serve Cleburne County, but since 2006 it has not had a campaign in the county and didn’t serve residents directly, Jenkins said.

“We’ve always covered Cleburne County residents,” he said. “Six of our partner agencies in Calhoun County also serve Cleburne County.”

But this year the chapter is expanding its campaign to return to Cleburne County. The campaign will give partner agencies a revenue stream specifically for Cleburne County residents, Jenkins said.

The United Way chapter is working with Wedowee-based Reaching Out International, which organized the food distribution, and the Heflin group Helping Every Area Resident to Succeed, which will become one of its agencies in August. Calhoun County agencies that previously covered Cleburne County residents will also receive money specifically for Cleburne County residents because of the expanded campaign, Jenkins said.

Bedwell Street was blocked by 10 a.m., the time the food distribution was scheduled to begin. People lined up on the street in both directions and waited to turn into the parking lot where the food was bagged and piled on tables near the church.

Drivers drove up next to the tables, told the volunteers how many families they were picking up food for and volunteers loaded a bag for each family in the vehicles.

Every bag is different, said Lee Anne Shelnutt, a volunteer with Reaching Out International.

“We’re putting in at least six canned goods and about three things from over here,” Shelnutt said, pointing to boxes filled with cereals, crackers, chips and juices. “Then, they’re going to get a bag of potatoes and a bag of onions.”

The bags were filled by some two dozen volunteers, including four county prisoners, assembly-line style: first the canned and boxed goods, then the potatoes and onions. Finally, they placed the bags on the distribution table.

Steven Waters, a founding member of Reaching Out International, said the group wasn’t keeping track of how many families it was serving. But he estimated it would be between 600 and 700 families by the time the food was gone.

The group does monthly food distributions at Morrison Chapel Church in Randolph County, but this is the first one it’s done in Cleburne County, said Michael Waters, Reaching Out International’s executive director.

The nonprofit was founded about four years ago to feed the hungry and has been serving Randolph, Clay and Cleburne counties, he said. This year, the group added Cleburne County at the United Way’s request, Michael Waters said.

The United Way Food Bank in Birmingham called about a week ago to let Reaching Out know food was on its way.

“They’re trying to get more food into Cleburne County,” Michael Waters said.

The Waters family started Reaching Out International after serving in missions overseas for a decade, Steven Waters said. It was Michael’s and his grandfather’s project, Steven Waters added. They fed the one person in Randolph County who they knew was hungry and asked if that person knew of more people who needed help.

“Within two months we had 30 or 40 families,” Steven Waters said.

Now, they feed between 600 and 700 people per month depending on the weather and the season, he said. They distribute food monthly at Morrison Chapel Church and have a warehouse in Wedowee that rarely stores food, he said.

“No point in holding food if somebody’s hungry,” Steven Waters said.

Looking at the line of cars as it moved past the food-laden tables Nancy Waters, another founding member of Reaching Out International, said she hoped the food would hold out until the event’s end at 11:30 a.m.

“We joke about this being like the loaves and the fishes,” she said. “It multiplies.”

Staff Writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545 or, in Heflin, 256-463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.