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Two years after founder's death, Hunger First is prospering

Nick Shepherd • Jan 13, 2016 at 9:30 AM

KINGSPORT — On a sunny Monday afternoon, a young man with slick black hair walked through the doors of Hunger First, accompanied by his young son and a woman with a small puppy.

He was looking for advice. He had just received full-time custody of his son and needed to get him a physical. After getting pointed in the right direction, he asked if the organization was giving out any food. To which the answer was yes.

Soon another volunteer appears with an armload of groceries. They are given to the man and his family, who happily go on their way. Then another man walks through the doors, asking if he needs to bring a piece of mail in order to get food.

Theresa Smith, a longtime volunteer with Hunger First, tells the man that is not needed at Hunger First. Neither is an ID. She takes his name and orders up groceries for one. When the man is told he can come back in six days instead of the usual 30, he excitedly asks, “Really?” Groceries appear and the man is on his way.

Nearly two years after founder Cindy Risk died in an automobile crash, Hunger First is not only continuing her vision, but taking it to places she could only dream about.

“My intention was to take Hunger First from where it is to something bigger, something unimaginable,” said Michael Gillis, executive director of Hunger First. “Something that Mom always talked about, always dreamed about, desired. But obviously never got a chance to do.”

Under Gillis’ direction, Hunger First has grown and expanded. In 2015 alone, the non-profit organization expanded by taking over a store located in the same building. It then turned the old store into a temporary shelter for the homeless, where the organization has taken in six young adults and are working toward teaching them structure and a different way to do things. For instance, the men staying at the shelter have to volunteer for Hunger First.

Food shelves are fully stocked. Clothes donations are so numerous Hunger First has to share with other local ministries and even an orphanage in North Carolina. Finances are looking better, though they’re not exactly where Gillis would like them to be.

All this progress has not come without sacrifice. Gillis had to drop out of school last semester and permanently closed his landscaping business to focus on Hunger First full time.

He’s not feeling sorry for himself, though. Instead, he’s focusing on the future and how to make Hunger First even stronger for years to come. This year he is hoping to establish three committees that, while mostly internal, would help the organization. He is currently seeking volunteers to help with finances, benefits and giving back to the community.

If you would like to volunteer or donate money, food or clothes, you can visit Hunger First at 829 Myrtle Street. You can also visit its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/hungerfirst/?fref=ts) to donate online. Gillis said that without donations, Hunger First would not be able to serve the community.

While Gillis has struggled with guilt because his mom is not around to see how Hunger First has grown, he has learned one vital thing.

“I’ve learned that it’s OK to trust people,” he said.

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