By Dana Delgado
There is no pause for Operation Liberty Hill Director Susan Baker.
There can’t be. The humble mission of the non-profit organization to help those in the area who are struggling to make ends meet is simple and straightforward enough. It’s the scope and scale, which have become increasingly evident, that are unsettling. Of particular concern is the issue of hunger.
As director and one of the founders of Operation Liberty Hill, Mrs. Baker has experienced plenty to stay inspired and to work relentlessly to improve the organization’s services, operations and management. The elderly homeless couple living out of their car, hungry young children clinging to their mothers, embarrassed parents arriving in luxury vehicles are all part of the steady stream of desperate but very grateful residents seeking help.
To Director Baker, each visitor is a constant reminder of the enormous plight so many people in the community are shouldering. The widespread struggle underscores the immense responsibility of Mrs. Baker and the volunteer staff at Operation Liberty Hill.
“God put this on us for a purpose,” said Mrs. Baker. “There is a huge need in Liberty Hill and we are like an oasis for the community.”
According to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services (TDHHS), nearly 53,000 residents of Williamson County, which includes Liberty Hill, are food insecure. Food insecurity occurs when a primary food source has been compromised or is being threatened. It is noted by TDHHS that in Williamson County, 75 percent of those identified as food insecure earn too much money to receive SNAP (food stamps) and that only 42 percent of those identified as food insecure may be eligible for most federal nutrition programs.
Rural residents facing hunger issues also have to contend with additional challenges. Director Baker says they often have to deal with a lack of infrastructure and a greater distance from sources of assistance. The elderly have the added challenge of their mobility.
As a state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that Texas has a household food insecurity rate that is significantly higher than the national average with an estimated 4.2 million Texans at risk of hunger and ranks 9th in child food insecurity in the country. The Texas Hunger Initiative, a capacity-building collaborative project based at the School of Social Work at Baylor University, notes that one in four children in the state does not know whether or not he or she will have food for their next meal.
Located in an older, but modest rented building at 15100 Hwy 29, Operation Liberty Hill provides food and toiletries from its pantry, maintains a well-stocked clothes closet including items for infants, has a supply of furniture for distribution, and is ever ready to make referrals to other agencies that fill the void that they are not able to fill. Food collection boxes are also maintained at various sites around town.
Operation Liberty Hill, however, is far more than just a community resource center. To area residents who are suffering, it is godsend.
“Sometimes they just want to talk, feel valued and loved,” Mrs. Baker said. “From the disabled to the elderly and those on Social Security and those struggling but working poor and the unemployed, things just snowball. Nothing, however, could happen to help them without great volunteers and contributors.”
To qualify for assistance, individuals have to live in the Liberty Hill Independent School District and must complete an application. Operation Liberty Hill is open Tuesdays from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Thursdays from 4–7 p.m. and the first and third Saturday of every month from 9 a.m. – 12 Noon.
“We have never turned anyone away,” Director Baker said.
The faith-based non-profit organization founded in 2012 serves about 150 families every month. When they first opened their doors, they were only serving 45 families.
With school not in session, the summer months are the peak months for Operation Liberty Hill.
This summer in collaboration with scouts from Boy Scout Troop 196 and its leader Meredith Brand, snack bags are being distributed for the first time. Ms. Brand, who conceived the idea and has been a frequent collaborator with Operation Liberty Hill on other projects has been spearheading the project being called the “Kids Summer Snack Program.”
“Those scouts along with several of Meredith’s friends in her neighborhood and their kids and Meredith’s kids are collecting and purchasing the snacks and bagging them,” said Mrs. Baker. “They have helped with the distribution also. They have done a lot of work and the kids love the fact that they have their own personal stash of snacks.”
Director Baker went on to say that snack donations had also been provided by the PTO and local churches as well as individuals. In addition, monetary donations have supported the program.
For many families in the area, school can’t begin again soon enough. But not necessarily because of their children’s eagerness to resume their studies, or to see their friends, or become re-engaged in activities. For many, it’s a matter of having a meal.
In Liberty Hill, the issue of food security impacts at least 853 LHISD students in Pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
According to Mary Sheffield, District Nutrition Manager, about 30 percent of the district’s student population were on free and reduced lunch this past year. Liberty Hill Elementary led the district with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students with 46.9 percent followed by Bill Burden Elementary with 31.6 percent and Liberty Hill Junior High School with 26.9 percent of its students identified as economically disadvantaged. Liberty Hill Intermediate and Liberty Hill High School recorded the lowest percentages in the district with 24.7 and 19.8 percent, respectively.
Mrs. Sheffield said the district does not provide free meals during the summer like other school districts.
“We are not required to since we don’t meet the requirements,” she said. “If a district has over 50 percent of their students eligible for free or reduced meals they are required to have a summer feeding program unless a community program is already being run. A district can also choose sites that are based on a census data and 50 percent or more of the children living in the area needed to be eligible for free or reduced priced school meals. Liberty Hill ISD doesn’t meet either requirement.”
Besides students, hunger impacts their parents, pre-school siblings and others including the elderly, the disabled, the unemployed and underemployed, and the homeless among others. Potential consequences of food insecurity regarding physical and mental health as well as behaviors, social skills and development are well documented.
Once a stop-gap strategy by families to alleviate acute emergency needs, community food banks and pantries have evolved as a crucial part of a family’s long-term strategy to supplement monthly shortfalls in food according to a 2010 study by Feeding America.
To meet current and future needs, Operation Liberty Hill has to meet particular needs itself.
Mrs. Baker says the organization is always seeking donations (non-perishable food, gently used clothing and furniture). In addition, the non-profit seeks monetary donations to augment its pantry and to help offset its operational expenses including rent and utilities.
Finally, Operation Liberty Hill is looking for a larger building and or property to be donated to meet the growing needs in the community. In addition, caring volunteers are always welcomed but individuals with trucks who can lift and deliver furniture are particularly needed at this time.
The organization is also going through reorganization and is in the process of expanding its Executive Board which is expected to be announced in the fall. Furthermore, Operation Liberty Hill continues to strengthen its network of support from community organizations that include churches, schools, community and school clubs, and businesses. A soon-to-announced open house is also being organized to make the community more aware of its mission, its efforts and its vision.
In August, the Liberty Hill Professional Firefighters Association Local #4744 is helping collect items for the food pantry in connection with Back to School. Non-perishable food items and toiletries may be dropped off at the fire station throughout the month of August.