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Hunger Beat

A welcoming presence at 6th Grace Presbyterian’s food pantry

If you’re looking for Richard Rolark, 73, he’s likely in one of two places. The first is 6th Grace Presbyterian Church in Chicago’s Douglas neighborhood, where he’s been a member for 60 years and has been volunteering with their food pantry since 2005.

The second is on an Amtrak train, taking one of his monthly trips to see the country, a hobby that has earned him the nickname Mr. Amtrak.

In both places, Rolark likes to strike up conversations with the people he comes across. No matter their background or experience, Rolark said, “We have more in common than our differences.”

At the food pantry, Rolark uses those conversations to ease any fear or intimidation guests might feel about visiting a food pantry.

“I like to make people feel welcome, cheer them up as they come in,” he said, adding that he tries to get everyone laughing. “We have a good time here.”

Rolark has seen people treat those in need poorly in the past, which has only motivated him to help his neighbors in a way that engenders respect. “I like to make people feel good, worthy,” he said.

Rolark, an Army veteran, also volunteers on delivery day, helping to unload groceries from the Food Depository truck and set up the stations for the pantry. “I can’t help as much as I used to,” he admitted. “I’m not as strong.”

Thankfully, his true strength is working the crowd during the pantry. “He’s so well known in Bronzeville,” said Pamela Jones, coordinator of the 6th Grace Presbyterian Church food pantry. “Some people are embarrassed to come to a food pantry. We do everything we can to ease that. Richard makes everyone comfortable. We all love him.”

a volunteer unpacks a box of food

Richard Rolark

Rolark first started volunteering at the pantry with his mom, who has since passed. He credits her with teaching him the value of volunteering and helping others. He said times were lean when she was growing up, which likely inspired her empathy toward those in need, a value she passed on to him. His mom also introduced Richard to train travel.

When he’s on a train trip, the pantry guests at 6th Grace Presbyterian miss Mr. Amtrak. “Where were you?” they ask when he returns, clearly grateful he’s brought back his usual sunny disposition, along with a few new travel stories.

Despite the endless draw of the next trip, Rolark said he has no intention of stopping his volunteer work at the pantry, adding, “I’ll keep volunteering probably until they put me on that great train in the sky.”

Volunteers like Rolark are the lifeblood of the Food Depository’s work. Their dedication and passion make it possible to feed our neighbors experiencing food insecurity. Join us in our mission to end hunger! Learn all the ways you can volunteer to make an impact in your community.

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