Providing more than just meals

Food bank director in Arundel also offers furniture, clothes to needy

January 27, 2003|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

Don't call Bruce Michalec a Good Samaritan, he says. He is a businessman.

The 63-year-old director of the Anne Arundel County Food Bank professes to run it the same way he managed shoe stores in Connecticut.

"You know what sells shoes? It isn't the promotions or the types of shoes. The No. 1 thing that sells shoes is shoes. If you don't have shoes, you're not going to sell shoes," he said.

"If I don't have enough stuff, I'm not going to get rid of stuff."

Michalec started the food bank as a federal program distributing government cheese. That wasn't enough to meet the need, so he expanded, first to all types of food and then beyond.

He has a 1,000-square-foot- plus room stacked head-high with furniture. In other rooms, he has racks of clothes that were left at Cleaning by Riley stores and donated. He also has 33 boxes of disinfectant, Christmas tree holders, sofas, enough used exercise equipment to furnish a gym, dozens of computers, scores of lamps, a panel truck and a late 1980s Mazda.

"What I always say," Michalec said, "is if you can't find it on eBay, call me."

This year, the Crownsville food bank - a nonprofit that distributes 1.5 million pounds of food a year to more than 100 nonprofit agencies - will mark its 15th year of operation. Most counties have one or more food banks, and most have several employees. But Michalec's food bank is the only supplier in Anne Arundel that distributes all types of food.

And he is still its only full-time employee.

Giving chances

To meet Michalec, you must walk between the plants that flank the front doors of the food bank, an unheated building that formerly was Crownsville Hospital Center.

The dying fern on the right was donated. The green, long-leafed one on the left, he found in a trash can.

"Everything needs a chance," Michalec said. "If you have that attitude, you can't even let plants die."

There are a lot of "chances" stacked inside Michalec's warehouse. They're chances at furnishing a first apartment after leaving a homeless shelter, chances at eating a good meal and chances at getting clothes for your kids to wear to school.

When Michalec started the food bank, he was living in Anne Arundel County with his sister, Sarah, a county health official who helped start Sarah's House homeless shelter at Fort Meade. She died in 1995.

Michalec just wanted a job where he wouldn't have a boss. He made $6,000 a year.

First he took over the government cheese program. He then added a truck and a warehouse in Deale.

In 1997, he moved to the food bank's current location. He leases it, nearly for free, from the state. He has 4,500 square feet and a separate county-owned food warehouse in Millersville. And he started filling them. This year he is looking to expand into another building.

"I try not to turn anything down because what if [the donor] hits the lotto next week? He's not going to call me because I turned him down," Michalec said.

Though he doesn't reject much, he gets rid of donations that don't pass his inspection - no tables with deep scratches, no clothes with rips and no computer monitors with broken screens.

Except for some government food, all of Michalec's inventory is donated. A monthlong food drive at county buildings recently yielded 30,000 pounds of food.

The operation consists of Michalec, part-time assistant Linda Schlicht, driver Joseph Berry (a retired crab restaurant owner), and other retirees who pitch in with their trucks to drive furniture and food to families and agencies. Every day, six low-risk inmates from the Ordnance Road correctional center package food and load the trucks.

Michalec makes $35,000 a year, paid for by government grants and United Way donations. He typically wears donated clothes - recently it was a long-sleeve T-shirt advertising a 1998 food drive. He said he works 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Those who know him said he works twice that.

"I don't see how someone can work so hard for that little money," said Art Krzeminski, a food bank board member who works at a church pantry supplied by the organization. "It's his whole life."

Schlicht left her higher-paying job with benefits last year after meeting Michalec once, even though her new job offers no benefits.

"He responds to need," she said. "It doesn't seem to make any difference what the need is. He doesn't crack a smile. He's serious."

Typically, outreach agencies provide a link between Michalec's food bank and the people it serves. He supplies 57 food pantries, five soup kitchens and 40 other member agencies with food. But every so often - maybe a couple times a day - the layers are peeled away as a client arrives at Michalec's door.

The Michalec test

This month, on a Thursday, Mary Lynn Mulbauer came to Crownsville with her husband, two sons and daughter.

She is 34 and struggling. Her husband lost his job last year. They both contracted hepatitis A. They were evicted from their Glen Burnie apartment.

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