ALBANY —For four decades, the Lord’s Pantry has provided food and clothing to people in need. On Saturday, the charitable organization that has seen its own rough financial times of late got some much needed help — a $5,000 check from the Bag Lady Foundation, a charitable foundation created by celebrity chef and Albany native Paula Deen.
Deen was on hand Saturday afternoon for the check presentation to representatives of the Lord’s Pantry at Modern Gas on U.S. Highway 82 just north of Albany. She also was signing books for fans who began lining up as early as 8 a.m. Saturday.
In typical Paula Deen fashion, she had a lot going on during the weekend, which included a lunchtime visit to Jimmie’s Hotdogs downtown.
“I’m shooting several birds with one stone,” Deen said in an interview with The Albany Herald. “I’m actually here to celebrate our 49th class reunion from Albany High. The classes of ‘64 and ‘65 combined reunions and, of course, the class of ‘64 is celebrating their 50th year and us young chickens are celebrating our 49th.
“The Bag Lady Foundation is my foundation that was born in 2012 to help women in distress and their children.”
C.B. Fincher, a member of the Lord pantry’s board, said the $5,000 will go a long way toward help those in need in the Albany area, particularly as the holiday season approaches.
“This donation will help us buy about a month’s worth of food to keep us going,” Fincher said.
Asked if he had been surprised by the donation, Fincher replied, “Definitely.” he quickly added, “But you know, the Good Lord works in so many ways and he’s provided for us all through the years, and he’s continued to do so.”
Before and after the presentation, Deen and her husband, Michael Groover, were set up at a table to greet fans, who stood in a long line that snaked around the store, waiting for a chance to meet her, chat for a minute and get a book or other item signed. There was a roar from the crowd when she walked out from a back room to greet them.
Young Miley, who came with her mom, Krystal Reaves, and grandmother, Leigh Blaylock, asked if Groover, who sports a white beard, were Santa Claus.
Deen broke out in a laugh. “He does look like Santa Claus, doesn’t he?” she said. “I go to bed every night with Santa Claus and I get up with Santa Claus.”
One of the more touching scenes came when a diabetic teen asked Deen, who also is diabetic, to sign her insulin pump.
Simply finding a spot to park wasn’t an easy task, one that might have surprised the owners of Modern Gas, who allowed Susan Greene, who serves on the Bag Lady Foundation board, to have the check presentation and book signing at the store.
“Mark Holloway told me, ‘Bubbles, there’s no way you’re going to get 100 people in this store’ and I think he has indigestion right now because he’s eating those words,” she said. The Bag Lady Foundation had gift bags for the first 100 through the line, but Greene estimated that the crowd had swelled to at least 250.
It was another example of how popular Deen remains in her hometown.
“It has been such a wonderful turnout for her here in Albany,” Greene said.
Greene said she was happy to see the money going to an Albany organization. The decision was made by Deen’s well known Aunt Peggy Ort.
“When we asked Aunt Peggy to choose the foundation she wanted to give the money to, she didn’t bat an eye,” Greene said. “She said the Lord’s Pantry.”
The foundation is named after Deen’s first business enterprise. After stints hanging wallpaper and working as a bank teller, Deen went into business in Savannah selling bag lunches, which her sons delivered. As her “Bag Lady” service gained popularity, she was able to open her successful Lady and Sons restaurant. From there, she and her trademark “Hey, y’all!” greeting were catapulted to national fame on the Food Network and now her own digital platform Paula Deen Network.
“Our mission statement (of the Bag Lady Foundation) is to give to the women and children in need, like she was when she started with $200,” Greene said. “And it has been phenomenal. … It’s amazing the way people have reached out to us. And now being on the (Paula Deen) Network, the checks are abounding. And so we’re able to give back to the community organizations that are non-profit, like we are, to support them and they support us.”
Greene said she was happy to be able to tell Tom Wilburn, president of the Lord’s Pantry board, of the donation. The organizations funds were down and he was so shocked that he hung up the phone, she said.
It was a big boost for an organization of volunteers who helped 2,619 people in 2013.
“We like to think of our selves as a safety net for the people who are struggling in our area,” Fincher said. “One thing that people don’t understand (is) they think they (the same individuals) come back every month and get groceries.
“The average number of visits of that group that comes back more than one time is approximately four visits a year. They know they can come again when they really feel a need.”
Greene said the Lord’s Pantry was a worthy recipient. “It makes you feel good the you did something for home, for us,” Greene said. “And she’ll (Deen) be back.”
Indeed, Deen said she returns to her hometown as frequently as possible, pointing to her Aunt Peggy.
“I come home every chance I get because my Aunt Peggy still lives here,” Deen said, adding she’s trying to persuade Ort to move to Savannah. “We built her a cottage next to our house in Savannah and I’m hoping soon that’s where she’ll reside. But she’s got a lot of business (in Albany) to do.”
Deen also said her groundbreaking digital network is going well.
“It’s going good. I want to encourage everybody to go to pauladeen.com and it’ll tell them all about the new network,” she said. “The cooking/lifestyle/interactive/digital network is the first in the history of our country. We’re learning more about it every day.
“It’s something new for people. We hope they’ll check it out because I’m there waiting on ‘em, 24 hours a day seven days a week.”