Food bank enriched by blue-collar giving

Compassion for needy runs deep in Dundalk

January 14, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Bundled in three layers of clothes at 5 a.m., they worked the gates of the Bethlehem Steel plant with 5-gallon buckets. They raffled Harley-Davidson collector Barbies. They gave bull roasts, auctioned Christmas gifts and threw a rock 'n' roll dance.

Together, the Dundalk labor unions and business owners muscled $52,500 and many pounds of food out of their co-workers and communities, making the blue-collar town the most generous proportionally in the state for the Maryland Food Bank.

"To get $50,000 from this group, I mean, do the math with me," said Maryland Food Bank Director Bill Ewing at a sandwich lunch yesterday for the volunteers. "Dundalk represents less than 1 percent of the state population. If we got the same support from the rest of the state, we'd raise 5 or 6 million dollars."

In addition to donated food, the nonprofit food bank raises about $600,000 a year to pay for drivers, trucks and warehouse space. "The traditional fund-raising approach assumes you go where the money is, like North Baltimore," Ewing said. "But what they have an excess of in Dundalk is compassion."

Don Kellner and United Steelworkers Local 2609 started collecting money and food 12 years ago for the Harvest for the Hungry Food-a-thon. That year, they amassed $1,381 and a pickup truck full of food, setting a goal to top the next year.

During the next few years, they were joined by Beth Steel management and four other steelworker locals , the United Auto Workers of America, the Thompson Automotive Group, the Harley-Davidson Store, and retirees from the Bethlehem plant and shipyards.

Last year's total was $48,600.

"That was a tough goal to beat because of the downsizing on Sparrows Point, the downsizing in UAW, the downsizing everywhere," Kellner said yesterday.

Some joked about their fund-raising tactics. Tom Stoll of Local 2610 said "steelworkers' language" did the trick for him, displaying a fist and a grin. But when the laughs subsided, the macho and the muscled offered heartfelt reasons for their efforts.

"It'll surprise you because when you see these guys on a day-to-day basis, they're fighting over a 35-cent cup of coffee," said David Hill Sr., a second-generation tin-mill worker of Local 2609. "Then you see them show up at a gate and give $100, and you think, `Where did that come from?' "

James Bannister of Local 2610 put it this way: "In our history as steelworkers, we've gone through the lean and hard times. We've been through the big bucks, and we've been through no bucks, which, I think, makes us more understanding of people being hungry."

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