Feeding her community

Passion, faith help Marjorie Cobbs keep Austin food pantry going

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By TERRY DEAN

SOMEONE YOU SHOULD KNOW
While most seniors are enjoying their elder years in retirement, 79-year-old Marjorie Cobbs is hard at work at her Austin food pantry.

She spends her Fridays with her small volunteer staff running the Columbus Park Food Pantry, located at the Columbus Park Refectory, 5701 W. Jackson. The location is open 12 months a year.

Though she is a retiree, Cobbs has dedicated herself to the pantry she founded 17 years ago. Donations are down recently, but Cobbs and her crew of six to seven staff carry on.

She received a little boost this past Christmas. With the help of Austin state Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th), her pantry received 8,000 donated canned goods. It was Ford's idea to do a food drive for the pantry after talking with Cobbs about her recent struggles. It was also a kind of a personal gift to her, since Dec. 29 is her birthday.

The Columbus Park pantry is one of many affiliate sites of the Greater Chicago Food Depository. But, according to Cobbs, her site in Austin is one of the few - and perhaps the only, though she's not entirely sure - that's completely unaffiliated with a church.

According to the depository's website, www.chicagosfoodbank.org, at least one other Austin-area site is not run by a church. Cobbs, who lives in neighboring North Lawndale, isn't complaining, but says being somewhat independent forces her to have to run her site on a shoestring budget, much of it coming from Cobbs' personal finances.

She stopped renting trucks, because she could no longer pay for the mandatory refill of gas; that money was coming from her Social Security check. Cobbs now borrows vans from people she knows in the neighborhood. But that can only happen on their time, so she's looking to own her own cargo van to make things more convenient. She's sought other kinds of help and support from elected officials over the years but feels she's mostly gotten lip-service from a few of them.

Her pantry sits in the 29th Ward. Over the years, she sought assistance from former Ald. Isaac Carothers, who's since resigned and is serving federal time after being convicted of corruption charges. Before the Carothers episode blew up in summer 2009 - he eventually resigned in February 2010 - Cobbs said that he wasn't much help to her or the community.

"I asked him for a donation, but he couldn't do anything. I felt very hurt over that, because here I am feeding your people in your ward but you can't support me?" she said. "But I kept it going, because I wasn't going to let one person deter me."

That fiery, yet motherly, attitude and spirit of Cobbs comes through after only a few moments in her presence.

"Fearless" is another word that describes her.

A health scare

Cobbs says she's not afraid of anything. But from talking with her, those unfamiliar with her would never notice that she has a serious health ailment, one that could have cost her her life.

It was in April 2010 - the 9th actually, as Cobbs clearly remembers - that she was on her way home from the pantry, driving along Jackson. Just before the intersection near Cicero Avenue, Cobbs blacked out behind the wheel. She hit a parked car and seriously injured her back. Never in 26 years of driving had she ever had an accident, Cobbs said.

Doctors later discovered a pea-sized tumor in the front area of her brain. It wasn't cancerous, and she underwent surgery to have it removed. It was a slow-growing tumor that doctors believe had been present for maybe a decade. But she also suffered a blood clot in her lungs from the accident and went through extensive surgery.

The tumor has since returned, and she's currently being treated. But Cobbs proudly says that, unlike some other elders, she can still do things for herself - cooking, cleaning, driving, all without any need for a cane or a walker.

"God wasn't ready for me; I still have work to do," she said.

That work includes feeding the community, and Cobbs - also known as Ms. Marjorie to some - doesn't believe in boundaries when people are in need.

"If you're coming from Evanston to any pantry, then that means you really need the food. There should be no boundaries; I have no boundaries," she said.

Cobbs in the past financially supported her pantry through fundraisers, such events as gospel festivals on the West Side. But after her accident, she wasn't able to host any in the last year.

A native of Detroit, Cobbs has lived most of her life on Chicago's West Side. At the age of 11 months, she came to the city with her parents, both of whom were from Alabama but met and married in Detroit. The couple would have six children in all.

Cobbs worked as a receptionist for the St. Jude Police League and was a caterer before retiring, and is also very active in her church. It was around 1994 when she founded the food pantry. She and a lady friend were classmates in a sewing class at the Columbus Park Refectory and talked about opening a pantry in Austin together. But her friend died before they could get going. Cobbs chose to continue on.

"I just decided to carry through with it," she said.

Anyone interested in starting a satellite food pantry site has to contact the Greater Chicago Food Depository, fill out some paperwork and go through a screening and training process.

There doesn't appear to be any slowing down for Cobbs, though she has thought about who'll take over the pantry when she finally retires as its director. She has five adult children and her son, an interior decorator, has agreed to take over the pantry in about five years when she's ready to step down.

"He said 'Mom, just let me know when you're ready,'" Cobbs said.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

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