By Josette Keelor
EDINBURG -- When A Small Hand outreach project in Edinburg opened its doors four years ago, Director Ann McBroom considered it a busy week if 20 families stopped by.
Now she regularly serves 160 each week.
In May, she served 781 infants, she said, "and we are struggling actually."
Not your typical diaper pantry, A Small Hand gives out food, clothes, books, toys, blankets and on occasion furniture. Housed in the basement of Edinburg Christian Church, it specializes in items for children up to 36 months.
"We're something that doesn't exist anywhere else in Virginia," Ann McBroom said. The closest other pantry for toddlers and babies she knows of is in Oklahoma, but "they don't serve like we do, families on a regular basis."
She said A Small Hand fills in the fourth week each month that the national Women, Infants and Children program and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program don't cover.
"They assume that families have money or resources for the other week of the month," she said. Unfortunately, a one-size program does not fill all.
In summer, when low income families can't feed children who normally receive free or reduced price meals at school, it's worse.
"I used to look upon summer as a wonderful time," McBroom said. "[Now] it represents for me a lot hungry kids in Shenandoah County."
Heather Dodson's 10-month-old daughter has a dairy sensitivity and can't drink cow's milk, but when the Woodstock mother came to A Small Hand for groceries Thursday, she didn't expect to find a nearly $30 can of Similac Expert Care Alimentum hypo-allergenic baby formula.
When a volunteer handed her two cans, she hugged them to herself.
"This stuff is so expensive," she said. Through WIC, she receives four cans a month, but it's not enough.
Jamie Pennington of Mount Jackson, who brought her three children with her Thursday morning, wasn't sure about A Small Hand when she first learned of it.
"I thought it was a once-a-month thing," Pennington said. But a friend recommended it, and since then she's brought home a crib, bouncer and changing table for her son Alec Fetterhoff, now 6 ½.
"It's just good all around," she said. Each week she gets free diapers for Alec and books for her older children.
"They're excited when they get the books and it's a great help," Pennington said.
Over a third of children in Virginia under the age of 3 are living in a low income family, a number McBroom said is reflected in Shenandoah County.
Of that 36 percent, she said half are at poverty level and the rest still barely have enough to eat.
A Small Hand also struggles to put food on those tables.
Despite its 50 to 100 regular volunteers, it needs constant donations of money, food such as seasonal vegetables and gently used clothes up to 4T.
Grant money and donations are used to buy food in bulk through the Stephens City Walmart, which lets A Small Hand back its truck up to the loading dock. The rest of the pantry's stock comes from direct donations -- like 250,000 diapers donated from the National Diaper Bank Network and Huggies.
To support its families, it needs to raise $82,000 this year and so far has raised about half. What should be a comforting thought only reminds of an uncertain future.
Parents McBroom serves are working two or three jobs to feed their families. They're college graduates. They have doctorates.
"We have a lot of graduates in our area that are earning minimum wage," she said. "It's a very expensive time when people have young children."
"I would like the community to realize they have a resource here which is something that doesn't exist elsewhere," she said.
"Everything is free," she said. "We don't sell anything."
A Small Hand, located at 210 Center St., Edinburg, is open 9 to 11 a.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. Thursdays. For more information, call 540-933-6313 or visit helpingshenandoahcountyinfantsinneed.blogspot.com/.