When Operation Once in a Lifetime opened a thrift shop in Killeen one year ago, John Valentine said he had no idea of the tremendous growth the charity would see in the area.
“It’s been nonstop go, go, go,” said the president of the Fort Hood chapter of the nonprofit. “It’s been tremendous as far as the number of soldiers we are helping and our impact on the community.”
The Dallas-based nonprofit worked in the area with service members and retirees for about six years before opening the physical storefront in downtown Killeen.
“We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve progressed,” said Valentine, a retired sergeant first class.
Since then, it’s gone from offering help with furniture, emergency funding and helping veterans through tough times, to adding a food pantry serving about 500 families a week, Valentine said. Unlike other pantries in the area, people can access it by paying a $10 a month membership fee. Then they can visit as much or as little as they need to. The pantry began with about 200 members and now has 2,000.
“Nobody had any idea what this would turn into, and it exploded,” said Valentine’s mother, Linda Valentine, who manages the store and food pantry. “It’s the ability to help the soldiers maximize their income, and to help them in times of need.”
Pam Turner, spouse of a retired veteran, visited the store in January to find a crib for her grandson and has volunteered up to five days a week ever since. She is now the receiving manager for donated items.
“I love the customers and the people I work with,” Turner said.
She said the joy on customers’ faces when they find that item that will change their life is priceless — whether it is a washing machine, baby clothing or food.
“When they come in and are able to get the stuff they need at a low price, that’s what I like,” she said.
Every Thursday and Saturday when the food pantry is open, the line snakes through the store and down the under-construction roads of downtown, as families wait. Many bring reusable grocery bags and children in strollers.
On Nov. 21, families received frozen chicken quarters, oatmeal, eggs, chocolate milk and plenty of produce. Each visitor brings home between $25 to $40 worth of food, depending on what’s available that day through the Capitol Area Food Bank.
“That’s what makes us feel good — when we see people walk out of here on pantry day,” Linda Valentine said.
The food pantry opened in May and has since spent about $17,000 on 99 orders of food. The actual value of what’s given away is nearly $500,000.
While a lot of patrons are active-duty soldiers, Valentine said they get plenty of retirees as well.
Mary and Russell Landry, a married couple with a combined 23 years of service, said they use the food pantry to make it between paydays.
Even though they’ve gone through their own hard times, and needed furniture donations from Once in a Lifetime, they’ve also given back when they can.
“When we moved, there were things we didn’t need and were still (usable), so we gave back to help other people, other veterans and other soldiers,” Russell Landry said. “We need to make sure veterans know about this establishment.”
Linda Valentine said none of this could be done without the dedicated team of volunteers. Just to prepare for pantry days, four volunteers put in about 10 hours worth of work so families can easily come through and get what they need.
“It’s been very rewarding ... to see the evolution because the word is spreading to family members,” she said of the hard work behind the scenes. “You can tell by the look on people’s faces that they’ll be OK. It makes you feel warm all over when you know kids won’t go hungry.”