It’s not even 8 in the morning, but Charlie Duso is already at the Food City, buying bread to put into food boxes to give to his clients.
“We’ve been blessed in this,” said Duso who leads a small army of volunteers for CROSS at the organization’s small, neat headquarters on Boyds Creek Highway. “We buy at Food City because they give us the best prices.
“Every year, Food City gives us a $500 donation, too,” Duso said. CROSS has been doing its food shopping there the past three or four years.
Duso, 72, is the driving force behind CROSS (Christians Reaching Out Serving Seymour), a non-profit organization established by local churches and staffed entirely with volunteers that helps meet the needs of those less fortunate with such basic necessities as food, fuel, utilities and rent.
While the organization is focused on the needs of Seymour residents and gets virtually all its funding from Seymour churches and individual donors, it will offer at least some assistance to nonresidents who ask for help with fuel, emergency auto repairs, lodging and food.
Most, if not all, the volunteers are retirees who want to serve Christ by helping their fellow man. At a sprite 72, Duso points out that “I’m one of the younger ones [volunteers].”
He is very modest about his own part in CROSS Inc, preferring to shirt the spotlight to his volunteers. “I may be in charge,” he said, “But this is a team effort. We have about 60 volunteers in the team. Without the team I couldn’t do it. They’re just great.”
The CROSS building is essentially a small warehouse with an area where clients can come and pick up food boxes or larger items. While the warehouse holds such things as rolls of insulation, bedding, appliances and furniture, most of the space in the building is given over to food – a place to pick up and bring food, sort it and pack in boxes for distribution.
Duso says volunteers harvested the logs and milled them for the construction of the warehouse addition. No money was shifted from buying food to the building job.
As with many other organizations these days, Duso is worried that the slumping economy is hurting CROSS’ mission.
“Last year at this time, the boxes along this wall were full,” he points out, showing boxes stacked high. “This year, the boxes are empty.”
He says he’s had to cut back on everything. For example, a year ago CROSS would help a client with utilities twice a year. That has been cut to once a year, he said.
“As long as we’re short on funds, we have to be careful stewards of all this,” he said. “If the economic difficulties continue, we could be forced to go back to distributing only food. After all, food is a most basic need.”
CROSS volunteers daily pack two types of food boxes. Boxes for individual clients usually contain 25 different staples, while larger boxes for families contain about 28 items. At times the organization receives treats like chips or, more recently, Peeps and they add those items to the food boxes.
It’s hard to predict how the rest of the year will go, but in January and February 2009, CROSS served 526 clients. In the first two months of 2008, it served 295.
Through February 2008, it spent about $20,000 meeting clients’ needs; this year, it has spent more than $30,000 in the same period. For all of 2008, CROSS spent $143,937 not including lodging and furniture, and who knows what it will have to spend this year.
Duso says the churches that are at the heart of CROSS’ mission help as much as possible and he points out that the community-at-large has been great during the rough times. Food drives organized by the Scouts and the Postal Service help a lot, but he says individuals and Seymour businesses also contribute a great deal. The organization holds an annual auction to which the businesses contribute generously. While CROSS gets no federal or state funds, it gets a modest contribution from the county. It is not a member of United Way of Sevier County but works with the organization to help clients. It also works with other food banks.
“CROSS is a Christian organization with Christian values,” Duso said. “Clients do not have to be Christians, but they must show a need. Sudden need can happen to anyone. These days, you see a family that has a nice house and cars, but their kids can be just as hungry as the less fortunate.”
Duso, a New Englander who came to this area initially to be closer to ailing parents, was a tool and die maker when he was injured on the job about 25 years ago. He began cutting gems and even has a gem shop, though he says he’s too busy with CROSS to keep it open.
“The good Lord kicked me in the butt,” he replies when asked how he got into working with CROSS. “When the Lord calls you, you do what he asks.”
He started volunteering about 10 years go and one day found himself in charge, Duso says. “It’s something that needs doing. I feel blessed to be doing this.”
Duso’s wife also helps out at CROSS. He has two daughters and a grandchild.
Asked about the future, Duso pauses to gather his thoughts.
With the community’s support, he says, CROSS will continue serving Seymour.
“People here in Seymour are the cream of the crop,” he says before rushing to the front office to greet the morning’s clients.
YOU CAN HELP
– Duso says CROSS needs an enclosed trailer that can be pulled to various sites to pick up larger donations. If you have have one to donate, you can get a tax deduction.
– Donate food and other items, or volunteer. Call 579-6192 for more information.
– Contribute money: Send it CROSS Inc. at P.O.Box 186, Seymour, TN 37865-0186.
– CROSS Inc. is at 406 Boyds Creek Highway. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and from 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (except holidays).