CUMBERLAND -- Bill Leasure watched as a line of more than 40 people began to form outside the back door of the Moose Lodge in Frostburg, waiting for food.
These were his friends and neighbors. They asked about his brother's bypass surgery, introduced grandchildren, shared innocuous gossip.
But, when the door finally opened, small talk stopped. The people in line crowded forward, cardboard boxes and plastic laundry baskets in hand, anxious to pick up their monthly allotment of food -- more than $40 worth of staples such as cereal and canned goods.
"They're not clients, they're my friends," Leasure said quietly as he left the site, driving across town to check another food-distribution program.
Leasure, 60, is the food program director for Interfaith Consortium, a private non-profit coalition of religious groups established in 1969 to help people in need in Western Maryland and along the nearby edges of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
In his bright orange Toyota Celica with 115,000 miles on it, Leasure barrels up and down the twisting roads of his native Cumberland and the nearby towns. Once a cook, he now helps to feed far more people than he ever did in his combination grocery-grill-bar and pool hall.
Two years ago, the program served 144 families in the area. Today, largely through Leasure's tireless promotion, it serves 1,500.
"At one point, they told me to stop talking about it so much," Leasure recalled with a chuckle. "They said, 'Bill, we've got more than we can handle.' "
Leasure's work was recognized this fall with the Maryland Food Committee's Jim Leonard Award, which gave him $500 to donate to the charity of his choice. Of course, Leasure chose Interfaith.
The Interfaith Consortium is, in and of itself, an interesting story. Although the way Leasure tells it, it sounds like the start of a bad joke: "Twenty-one years ago, there were two ministers, a rabbi and a Catholic priest. . . ."
These four men, recognizing the great needs of their geographically isolated area, also felt that aid should never undercut dignity. The result, exemplified by the food program, is an unusual system in which those who benefit also contribute.
Leasure sets up small groups, run like cooperatives, that elect boards. Low-income families apply to be included in the program. If they meet the relatively liberal eligibility standards, they then make $5 donations, which entitle them to a monthly allocation of groceries.
"Something you're going to notice, everyone in our programs is a volunteer," Leasure said. "They come down here, help give out food, get food, and they do it with dignity."
Leasure knows about hard times. About four years ago, he returned to Cumberland after years of living in California. He could not find a job.
"I was having hardships and people were helping us. The neighbors would bring over things. We'd find a box of food on our porch."
Someone referred him to a truck-driving job with Legal Aid. Leasure found out it was a volunteer job, but the woman at Legal Aid took a shine to him and referred him to Interfaith. Soon, Leasure had gone from worrying about feeding himself to worrying about feeding others.
"Doctor of Foodology" -- that's what one Presbyterian minister calls the round, amiable Leasure, who would need only a white tTC beard to play the part of Santa Claus.
And some people in Cumberland seem to think he is Santa Claus. Calls come in for winter coats and energy assistance, types of aid well outside Leasure's purview. Still, he gives such calls his best shot.
"The food program is the door-opener to everything else," he explained.
But the anxiety that dogs Leasure is that no one person, no single program, can begin to address the needs in Western Maryland. "We know we're just skimming the surface," he said with frustration. "Our biggest worry is making sure senior citizens get enough."
Leasure himself makes just enough money to get by, but he has no complaints.
"I remember a time when I lived three miles outside town and, if I came to town with less than $100 in my pocket, I felt broke. Now, if I have $3 in my pocket, I feel fortunate. I'm just as happy."