Our Opinion: A titan of caring steps down

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Ordinarily, an individual's retirement isn't all that newsworthy unless that person is some kind of celebrity. The fact that Valerie Schwarz isn't universally famous for her work reflects more on what we as a society revere than on how well she did her job, and how valuable that job was to so many. Ms. Schwarz isn't a big-name movie actress or professional athlete — all she has done for the past 25 years is to feed people in need. She has done it efficiently, compassionately, and she has done it well.

Nearly 25 years ago, Ms. Schwarz joined the Berkshire Food Project — a North Adams nonprofit provider of meals to the hungry — when it consisted of a few Williams College students and some local clergy, according to Jim Mahon, president of the organization's board of directors. Under her stewardship, the Berkshire Food Project grew from what everyone thought was going to be a temporary fix (to feed needy families after local mills closed) to a thriving operation that now serves 35,000 meals per year.

Three points about the project and Ms. Schwarz are salient: The project receives virtually no government funding, its annual budget is less than $100,000, and its core policy is to serve all comers, no questions asked. In other words, this is an entirely home-grown and -sustained operation. Ms. Schwarz made deals with local farms, for example, to give her organization excess produce, and she figured out a scheme where donors could buy farm shares on its behalf.

The "no questions asked" aspect of the project's mission is, perhaps, the most significant. There is an abiding stigma, as Ms. Schwarz acknowledged, associated with those who do not have the means to nourish themselves. As has been evidenced in the political discourse taking place recently in Washington, many have retreated into the safe assumption that those at the lower end of the economic pecking order possess a moral deficiency, otherwise they would not have to depend upon the charity of others. This attitude may be based on a puritanical strain in American thinking that has always pervaded the fabric of our national psyche, but it may also be no more than a rationalization for the self-interested to explain their reluctance to become involved. The wilful ignoring by Ms. Schwarz and her organization of the backstories of their clients is one way of allowing them to maintain their dignity while also demonstrating that they are accepted by their community.

Ms. Schwarz and her colleagues may not impel people to flock to buy tickets for a movie, and they may not be very adroit at putting a ball through a hoop, slapping a puck into a goal or hitting a home run. What they do is far more important than that. We salute Valerie Schwarz for her career of service to her community. Her work has enriched and sustained many, and we hope that is reward enough.


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