SIDNEY — Agape Distribution Director John Geissler had no idea in September 1996 that when he opened the doors to help combat hunger in Shelby County, the organization would mushroom — no pun intended — into the international force for good it has become 20 years later.
Agape Distribution will celebrate its 20th anniversary, Saturday, at a fundraising dinner at the Bridge restaurant, 127 W. Poplar St. The deadline for reservations for the $30 meal is Thursday, Sept. 15, at 5 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling 498-4368.
The event, which begins at 6 p.m., will feature keynote speaker Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary who was imprisoned and did two years of hard labor in North Korea before his release in November 2014. Bae has written a book about his experiences there. He will sell and autograph books following the dinner.
“I worked with Kenneth in China and took a team from Ohio in with Kenneth the trip before his arrest,” Geissler said. “He is an amazing man.”
To look at what Geissler has spearheaded at Agape, the same might be said of him.
“I expected to have a food pantry where we would hand people a couple of bags of groceries,” he said of the initial idea of Agape. And, it started out that way, with an all-volunteer staff. But it didn’t stay that way for long.
Within two years, the pantry was shipping containers of food and supplies to international centers in crisis. The first containers went to feed children in the Soviet Union affected by the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.
“USAID paid for everything,” Geissler said. Other containers followed, bound for Sierra Leone, Ghana, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaraugua, Ukraine and Romania.
“This was never on my radar because we were such a small organization. But I really feel there was a divine hand that gave us favor, opened doors we couldn’t have opened,” Geissler said. And the shipments took nothing from the needy in Shelby County. All of them comprised excess foodstuffs.
The first paid staff came on board in the organization’s sixth year. Now, there are seven paid employees, but Agape still depends heavily on its 70 volunteers.
“The volunteers make most of it happen. If we took them out, we couldn’t do it,” Geissler said. “The most rewarding aspect is watching the people when they come in and when they go out. They go out with a cartload of groceries, but they’re really walking out with hope. So it’s very encouraging. Maybe we’re not giving out groceries. We’re giving out hope in the form of groceries.”
Agape also helps many local nonprofit agencies by supplying snacks and other materials in support of their programs. The YMCA, the Salvation Army and Holy Angels are among them. United Way-member agencies get meals-ready-to-eat, so they’ll have something to distribute if someone needs food at a time when the Agape facility is closed. In addition, every Shelby County teacher is given $20 to “shop” at Agape for classroom supplies at the start of each school year.
Three things have surprised Geissler about the last two decades:
“First is the fast growth,” he said. “No. 2 is the amount of people in need. I never envisioned serving 17,000 ( people per year). And 3 is the supply of groceries. Never in my concept was that we would (distribute) 3 or 4 million pounds of groceries. God was dreaming a bigger dream than I was dreaming.”
Now, there are even larger human dreams for the future.
“Our board is taking a proactive stance to replicate Agape across the United States,” Geissler said. Beginning in 2017, the organization will begin to establish similar facilities in Vancouver, Washington, and New Orleans.
“We’re also looking at the rural poor in surrounding counties here, without stepping on the toes of existing food pantries,” he noted. “We want to make it hard to go hungry in Western Ohio. And then the nation.”
At the same time, initiatives at home call for the finishing of a building that will serve as an educational discovery center. The 20-foot by 14-foot structure is already in place at Agape’s Brooklyn Avenue location. As funding is found, solar panels and a water collection system will be installed. Eventually, the building and garden will demonstrate a totally off-the-grid operation using rainwater collection, composting and solar energy.
What started a year ago as a community garden has become the beginnings of an urban sustainability project. The 40 raised beds produced vegetables and flowers this year that helped to supply the “store.” But Geissler sees a future that includes the discovery center as a destination for school classes and community groups, the garden and a yet-to-be built greenhouse for hydroponic farming as the main supplier of vegetables to the 17,000 Agape clients and an edible trail of plants and trees at the site as an educational experience.
Agape will celebrate its 20th anniversary through September 2017. The fundraising goal for the year is $75,000. Tax-deductable donations can be mailed to 209 Brooklyn Ave., Sidney, OH 45365.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.