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Wally Oskirko volunteer at Thermal Belt Outreach Ministries

Published 10:00pm Friday, April 18, 2014

Thermal Belt Outreach Ministry, in Columbus, offers compassionate services for residents of Polk County who are living with a crisis or longer-term poverty.
Many positive factors come together there, with one of the most positive and omnipresent being Wally Oskirko, a volunteer there since 2007. Listening to what Outreach staff members say about Oskirko, one understands that labeling him merely a volunteer is akin to labeling Einstein as merely pretty smart.  “Wally’s a good man. I don’t know what we’d do without Wally,” said Michelle Reedy of Outreach’s client services. “He’s mission-driven. He cares about our clients.”
Technically Oskirko helps coordinate donations to Outreach, of many of the food, clothing and personal care items that are packaged or otherwise available for clients who pick them up at the facility. He collects donations (many of which are provided by the nearby Bi-Lo and Food Lion supermarkets), organizes them in Outreach’s new storage area, stocks the shelves and enjoys interacting with clients.
Oskirko spent most of his early life in New England, then lived in Florida for about 35 years, until retiring. In 2006, he and his wife Alice moved to Polk County. Alice Oskirko is a coordinator at Outreach. Oskirko occasionally returns to Florida to fish, mostly for perch and bass. But, he’s always back at Outreach.
“I just want to give back to the community, to help people out,” he offered modestly. “I see people who don’t get the help they need.”  Clients must meet certain requirements to be eligible for the facility’s services. In addition to large donations provided by retailers on a regular basis, Thermal Belt Outreach receives goods from individuals, sometimes as part of seasonal food drives conducted by the supermarkets. Clients also have access to good dental care next door.
Among other things, Oskirko helps pack school lunches for children in low-income families. He also emphasizes that Outreach provides packaged meals for children to who might otherwise go hungry on weekends.
Because Oskirko has been such a fixture at Outreach, and is so familiar with how the system runs, individuals representing the management that took over the facility about a year or two ago, came to him for help in getting them up to speed. “I know roughly what was to be given out (to clients) and how much,” when they “asked my opinion,” he remarked.
Donations provide a barometer for how much Outreach’s staff and volunteers can provide for clients. “If donations are up,” Oskirko said, “we can help people more. We do the best we can.
We get a lot of donations from Food Lion and Bi-Lo.” Each morning, Oskirko picks up those donations. Doing so is much more involved, he said, than simply parking a truck in front of the store, and having store employees fill it. He has to find the store employee who knows where that day’s material is, what else might be available, where the goods are, and more. Oskirko’s long association with the supermarket personnel is a huge advantage, which ultimately helps Outreach’s clients.  “They (store personnel) recognize me when I come in,” Oskirko noted.
He and clients are familiar with each other, as well. He knows many by name. “I try to get along with everybody,” he said.  “Wally is the go-to person,” emphasized Vennie Abrams, Pantry Coordinator. “Anything that happens, Wally has an answer. He’s an example of what we need a volunteer for,” Abrams continued. “He goes beyond that. He’s even here when he’s (supposed to be) off. That’s saying a lot.”
What drives Oskirko?  Though he and Alice did not live in areas of Florida regularly hit by hurricanes, they did witness the results of small communities being leveled by severe storms.
Wally also witnessed Red Cross provide food and other services for residents who suddenly had nothing. Oskirko sees the same gratitude in the faces of many of Outreach’s clients that he saw in Florida communities. “Just looking at some of the people’s faces, the gratitude they show, and not just to me,” he noted, makes being there meaningful and rewarding for him.
“A lot of people come in here crying,” he pointed out. One, a woman was rubbing her belly. When Oskirko asked her what was wrong, she told him that she’d eaten nothing since the day before. She’d recently divided what tiny bit of food she had, between her young children, so they wouldn’t be quite so hungry.
Regardless of our individual troubles, Oskirko observed “There’s always somebody (in) worse (shape) than you.”
Vennie Abrams said that volunteers in many facilities work when they are able, and then return to their families or to other pursuits. Oskirko, she noted, is an exception, spending so much of his time helping the staff and clients at Outreach.
“I enjoy my work,” Oskirko said. “I look forward to it every day.”

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