WILLCOX — As she does every weekday, Nell Worden walked through the doors of the Willcox Food Pantry at 6 a.m. Monday. This was going to be a big day because not only were the volunteers giving out their usual Monday food box, they were also going to be giving out the Thanksgiving food box, no small task. Worden did not expect to leave the place until 7 p.m. at the earliest. Then again, that’s almost a normal day for the 16-year volunteer veteran.

“I always say it’s my part-time, full-time, overtime volunteer job,” she said. “I basically put in eight hours or more every day, and sometimes I work on the weekends, too.”

As executive director of the Willcox Food Pantry, the 78-year-old Worden puts in more hours than most of us do at our regular job. She does it for one reason: It’s important to take care of your community. In this case, Willcox. Volunteers at the pantry know the work they do is important as well. After all, they’re feeding hungry people, people who need help feeding their families or themselves.

When the week is done, Worden calculates they will have given out enough food for 200 families to eat at least one meal for five days. They figure four per family, but some people have more than that in their household, so more food is given out. Worden, herself, decides how much food each carload will receive. She said she recognizes many of her guests and understands they need more, so she gives more. Generally speaking, when you break it down, by the end of the week, Worden figures she gives out 4,000 meals.

“No one’s turned away without food,” she said. “We’re not here to give them every meal, but just to supplement what they can’t buy at the grocery store or when they run out of food. That’s why we have the food pantry.”

The food that’s given out comes from any number of sources: the Community Food Bank in Tucson, monetary donations, grants and community members who contribute foodstuffs. Worden said donations have doubled since the pandemic, but the amount of people needing the pantry’s services has tripled. Still, the people of Willcox have stepped up.

“People in this community, and I’m sure they’re like this in other small communities, they want to take care of their community,” she said. “We are truly dedicated in this community and we do not feel like anyone should go hungry.”

Food also comes from nearby Safeway.

“We do what we call gleaning,” Worden said. “All food pantries usually have a store near them so whatever (the store is) gleaning off, we get it in the mornings. We go pick it up, we go through it. What’s good, we keep, and then we pass it out to people. We get a lot of good stuff.”

What isn’t good is given to anyone who has livestock they need to feed. That’s done on a first come-first served basis.

“We really don’t have much that goes to waste,” Worden said.

Every once in a while the pantry gets a pet food donation so they give that out, too. However, Worden does not buy it.

Since this is Monday the first packages of food for the week go out, beginning at 8 in the morning. Because this is a drive-up distribution, a line of cars stretches to the end of the road and around the block, the occupants waiting for their turn to collect the food. Distribution is done in a conveyer belt fashion. Volunteers line up and hand out an item. After receiving each item, recipients move to the next station. They will all be at this for the next couple of hours.

Monday’s distribution is particularly important because this is when recipients get protein among the foodstuff. They receive cold cuts, vegetables, fruit, bread and some kind of sweet.

“We get so many sweet things from Safeway,” Worden said. “They’ll get a cake or a big box of cookies or something like that.”

Donuts are a favorite. Often the staff includes a couple of other items, depending on what they have. This time of year they are giving out flour and oil “because of the holiday. We figure people will be needing that,” Worden added.

While that’s taking place, at the office things are jumping.

The office is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Thursday.

At noon on Thursday, another set of boxes is prepared and given out, this one with vegetables and bread, and the long line begins again.

No questions are asked; no one is turned away. No one has to present any identification or citizenship papers or income proof. Anyone may get a box.

For people who live below the poverty line, there is also an emergency box containing staples such as oil, flour, sugar and canned goods. That box may only be obtained once a month. Recipients do not have to prove their income.

“Most people that don’t need it don’t ask for it,” Worden said.

Even with all the guidelines, Worden just wants to make sure people have enough food.

“Since COVID started, if they ask me for a food box, I give it to them,” Worden said. “I don’t care. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what their circumstances are. They may have been making a lot of money at one time and now they’re making nothing. We really don’t have any rules right now except that you can only get that (emergency) box once a month. The rest of the time you can come through the line.”

The Thanksgiving meal giveaway began at 3 p.m. but at 11:30 a.m. people started lining up in their cars, which extended for at least half a mile. It was worth the wait because guests received not just a turkey, but gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, a (non-alcoholic) drink of some kind, a box containing 30 pounds of fresh vegetables, salad dressing, popcorn and bread.

“There won’t be much that they will have to buy for their Thanksgiving dinner,” Worden said. “It’s a lot and they got a lot this morning when they went through, so they should be OK for the holidays ... and I say for what we give them, if they didn’t have 50 cents to spend, they could still have a very, very nice Thanksgiving dinner.”

Everything is included; the only thing a person needs to complete the meal is a stove and water for the instant potatoes. Even so, Worden would like to be able to provide more.

“I wish that I had the money to provide some eggs and some milk and butter,” she said.

It can get discouraging when you look at the seemingly endless long line of cars, but Worden has a bevy of volunteers, at least 15, to help keep things going, including co-director Gerri Roberts. She is another who puts in the hours, at least 40 a week. She does it for a number of reasons, but here’s the main one:

“It’s hard to describe,” she said. “The Grinch that stole Christmas, and all of a sudden he gets it, and his heart grows 10 times bigger. It’s like that (for me). Especially when people are so grateful. They’re like, ‘Oh, gosh. You don’t know how much this means to me.’ It’s awesome.”

At the end of the day or when she looks down that line of cars, Worden counts her blessings.

“It makes me feel very blessed, that I can help people, and that I know they’re appreciative,” she said. “I see a lot of tears; I hear a lot of thank yous, and I see a lot of people that want to duck their heads. I feel like I’m in a position to do what I’m called to do, and that is to take care of our community and see that no one goes hungry.”

If you know someone who is hungry, anyone, Worden said, you may pick up food for that person or family. The only question she will ask is, “How many people are you feeding?”

“If there is a person out there that you as a person who reads this, you know is hungry, is not getting enough food, maybe you’re shut in, maybe somebody just doesn’t know about us, someone that just can’t even think about it, we are here,” Worden said. “Come to us; we will give (you) food to take to them. I feel that people who do that are doing a great service.”