If you can't feed 100 people

 then feed just one

By Linda Landreth Phelps

Ben Newman died on the day after Christmas, December 26, 2001. Three small white crosses mark the spot where Ben, his cousin Josh, and the man driving the other vehicle involved in the accident lost their lives. There was a new stop sign on Centerville Road where they had recently opened an intersection with the Monticello extension, and a large, lighted sign, " New Traffic Pattern - Stop Ahead !" was there to call attention to it. The only problem was that someone had vandalized it, cut the cord, and the sign was dark. It was an accident waiting to happen.

Basketball legend Thumper NewmanBen would be nineteen years old now, nearing full manhood. Nobody knows what wonders he would have accomplished in his life had he been given a chance, but we do know that a lot of good things are achieved in Ben's name and in his memory. Thumper Newman, Ben's father, decided that the best memorial to their kind hearted and high spirited son would be to help others in the most basic of ways - to feed those who would otherwise go hungry.

" A Gift from Ben " is the name of the full time charitable service formed when a program that had stalled from lack of funds was reborn. Thumper now spends most of each morning collecting, sorting and personally delivering food to Williamsburg people in a specially equipped truck fitted with three chest freezers. A snap shot- a younger smiling version of himself with  his arm around a dark-haired young boy who is leaning into his hug - is taped to the console. Thumper wears terry wrist bands embroidered with the name "Ben " in Black, just to remind him every day and minute of the reason he took on this enormous responsibility.

Thumper makes the rounds 7 days a week 364 days a year, picking up from seven different stores each day, plus meeting the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts delivery man for his donation of a large, fragrant bag full of day-old pastries. It's a perfect win/win/win situation, the kind where everybody gets to feel good: the stores write off the unsold goods as donations, " A Gift from Ben " gets food to distribute that would end up in a dumpster, and the homeless, sick, and disadvantaged who struggle to make ends meat reap all the benefits of a healthy, adequate diet.

First stop Ukrop's at 6:30 am, and it's still dark as we enter through the back delivery door. I'm Thumper's helper for the day since his regular volunteer is recuperating from surgery, so I try to make myself useful as we load the thoughtfully pre-packaged food we collect. I climb into the well used truck: the driver's seat's upholstery shows serious mileage and there's a strange shimmy as we slow down for a turn that Thumper casually informs me is just " something to do with the left front wheel." Obviously, the money donated to " A Gift from Ben" isn't going to luxuries. Every penny they get goes to operating expenses, and those are extremely low. It's all run by volunteer labor, including Thumper's. A staff of about fifteen or so that makes this effort run like a Swiss watch. I wonder why he has chosen this life for himself- after all it is not what you would expect someone whose given name is Everette Hale Newman IV to be doing with his days.

" When Ben died," Thumper said slowly, I can't really put into words how difficult it was; it just changed my world. I had been pretty shallow all my life, just thinking of nothing but making a lot of money and not caring about to much except myself and my own family. Suddenly, all that didn't make sense any more." With in a month or so of the accident, Thumper was asking Sister Bernice, the nun from St. Bede's Catholic Church who is famous in this area for her ministry to the poor and the homeless, how he could make a real difference." We started a scholarship in Ben's name. but I wanted to do something that would affect more people directly. Sister Bernice suggested that a program to feed the poor would be an appropriate memorial. " A Gift from Ben" now moves more than a million pounds of food with a retail value of more than $3 million dollars through it's system each year, " Thumper says with pleasure.

What began as a way to cope with his grief led Thumper to discover a true passion for the hungry & thirsty. He now looks beyond the limits of his home town of Williamsburg and does what he can to help the world. " A billion people in the world today will never get a glass of clean, safe water, and 69% of the earth's population have no access to water within a half mile of their house," Thumper says, " Sadly, 24,000 people starve to death every day, 75% of them are children under the age of 5. I helped organize a " Concert for Malawi ", an event at President's Park held in late October of 2006 that drew 6,000 people ad that raised $20,000. That will pay for five wells to be dug in Africa, serving about 3,500 people."

But today Thumper is serving Williamsburg's needy. Next stop is the food Lion at the intersection of Routes 5 and 199. As the sun rises above the field next to the store, it's rays spear through a heavy, low-lying fog. The light reveals a line of trees with their braches traced in relief and crowns the disembodied heads of a flock of Canada geese. Their bodies are shrouded in the shifting mist as they wander and gaze the tall grass: for them, getting enough to eat is a full day's work. Thumper and I head into the Food Lion to see what awaits us.

After a stop at the Fresh Market and the other stores, it's about 8:30 am and the back of the truck is nearly full of wonderful edibles- steaks, chicken breast, bacon, hot dogs, birthday cakes, fudge, bread of every kind and description, deli items such as fried chicken, rotisserie turkey breast, hoagies, bags of fresh vegetables and fruit. Except for some cupcakes whose frosting has suffered a little from the jostling, it all looks perfect to me. The deliveries commence- Thumper's favorite part.

I lose track of just where we're going, but it's mostly small, tucked awayThumper Newman on Mount Rushmore neighborhoods in a town that I never knew were there. Thumper has a story about everyone we see and he seems to know everyone. Some door-to-door delivers are made, a bulging paper sack left on the step if the door doesn't open readily to our knock. one elderly lady tries to give the organic whole-wheat bread back. " I won't eat it Darling", she tells me. " Just pass it along, ma'am," I reply.

" How do you decide who gets food?" I ask. " I don't screen anybody," Thumper says. " Sister Bernice has a sign in her office that states my motto best. It says " It's better to give and be deceived than not give and be mistaken." At every stop, Thumper's big white truck pulls into a parking lot in a neighborhood of small, neatly kept houses or apartments to find large crowds waiting, bags ready. We start unloading boxes of produce and bread for self-service picking over as Thumper announces, " Three meats per person - ladies first". People using wheelchairs and canes are the first to be served. The box on the truck is opened for their inspection and selection. " Sorry Miss Virginia no chicken wings today," Thumper says respectfully to an elderly, bent woman, " but we have some nice thighs here." One slender man calls " You know what I like, Thumper! you got any sushi?" And sure enough we do. By ten o'clock, all that's left in the bottom of the cardboard boxes are a few loose green grapes, some rejected asparagus stalks, and a small bag of key limes which I covet but am reluctant to ask for. The crowd disperses with anticipation of a tasty, nutritious meal on the table tonight. They're not worried about tomorrow, even though the electric bill ate up the last of their cash and the food stamps gave out a week ago. They don't need to worry, because they know Thumper will be back again with the gift that keeps giving- " A Gift from Ben."



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