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Founder of food pantry for military families keeps finding ways to expand outreach

By KEN GORDON | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: November 7, 2017

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Karl Noreus served his country but hesitated to help himself.

The 74-year-old Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, a Whitehall resident, is retired and on a modest fixed income. On a recent weekday, he visited the M.A.S.H. Pantry's produce giveaway at the Whitehall American Legion hall, where he is a member.

Clutching bags filled with ears of corn, salad mix and pears, Noreus was grateful for the outreach effort that brought the food to him.

"I just never figured out how to find a food pantry, and I'm shy about saying I need to go to a food pantry," he said. "So this is wonderful, and I really appreciate it."

Amber Hudson, the founder of M.A.S.H. Pantry, is familiar with people like Noreus — veterans in need whose pride makes them reluctant to seek help.

After all, she also is a veteran (Navy) and once was in the same predicament. About 15 years ago, Hudson was struggling to make ends meet as a single mother to three boys (now all grown).

"I happened to find a soup kitchen, and for two years (on) every Wednesday my boys and I walked in there and helped prepare and serve a meal," said Hudson, 49, who lived in Virginia at the time. "And then we sat and ate with all the homeless people.

"Little did my kids know that I was depending on that meal to help me feed them, but I was too proud to tell them."

Later, after escaping an abusive relationship, Hudson was a "couch jumper" for several years, living with friends and relatives without a permanent home of her own.

Such personal history drives her passion for the pantry, which serves veterans, active military members, reservists, military families and survivors.

"I can relate to them," Hudson said. "I want people to be able to depend on M.A.S.H. I want us to be there for them."

Hudson grew up in Commercial Point in Pickaway County, graduating in 1986 from Teays Valley High School. She served in the Navy from 1987-89, then settled in Virginia before moving back to Ohio in 2011.

She started a community food pantry in her hometown in 2012, but after becoming a registered nonprofit organization three years ago, Hudson in 2015 changed the pantry's focus to serving veterans and military members. The name plays off the long-running show "M*A*S*H" (1972-83), which centered on a team of doctors and support staff stationed at the "4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital" in South Korea during the Korean War.

The food-pantry abbreviation stands for "Military and Service Heroes," but the "mobile" concept remains important.

In addition to a physical pantry, located in Grove City, Hudson also organizes at least six outreach efforts a month, such as the recent event in Whitehall.

"There are people who can't get all the way to Grove City, so to bring it right to our community is just so amazing," said Jennifer Rigsby, a member of the Whitehall American Legion auxiliary. "Amber works so hard, and we're grateful that we're able to be part of this."

Hudson has several volunteers who regularly help her, but she shoulders much of the burden herself. The resident of Prospect in Marion County typically drives the truckloads of food to the outreach events.

Once on the scene in Whitehall recently, though, she had plenty of help unloading, with about 20 people lined up to grab boxes and place them on tables in the hall's covered back patio.

When the truck was empty, most of those same people lined up again, to register with Hudson to take food home. She doesn't require proof of income, only proof of military service.

"Veterans are a very proud people, but I think since Amber is so warm and treats them like family, they feel comfortable coming," said Hudson's mother, Elaine Fowler, vice president of the pantry.

The original pantry moved from Commercial Point to a locations on West Broad Street in 2015, then to Grove City in 2016. Later in 2016, a M.A.S.H. pantry opened at the Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base.

The organization operates on a shoestring budget of about $700 to $800 a month, according to Ralph Smith, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and the M.A.S.H. Pantry treasurer.

That money pays for truck rentals, Smith said. The pantry's contents are provided largely by food drives at various corporations, and the Mid-Ohio Food Bank provides the produce for the outreach events.

Wanting to help veterans in other ways, Hudson earlier this year started a support program for veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome. She also plans to open a pantry in Marysville in December, with hopes to eventually open one in Delaware County.

"Amber never quits thinking about what else she can do," Fowler said. "It never stops with her."

Hudson admits that her efforts sometimes leave her exhausted. But she is driven by the memories of her own struggles.

"I couldn't help myself at times, but I knew someday I could help others," she said. "That's why I'm so passionate about this."

kgordon@dispatch.com

©2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch at www.dispatch.com
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