Cindy Threlkeld – Executive Director MANNA Food Bank
By: Alisa Hixson
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of MANNA FoodBank, whose vision is a hunger-free Western North Carolina.
Cindy Threlkeld moved to Asheville last spring to take over leadership of the nonprofit service organization that links the food industry with 231 partner agencies in 16 WNC counties. Her work history reads like a “Who’s Who” of social service assignments. This is important, as the hunger challenges the region faces may be greater than at any time in the last 75 years. The latest report from the national Food and Action Research Center lists the Asheville MSA (metropolitan statistical area—which includes Buncombe, Madison, Haywood and Henderson counties) as the third hardest hit region in the nation for food hardship—folks struggling to feed themselves and their families. Nearly one third of them are children. The solutions will require the sum of her considerable life experiences.
Stepping inside Cindy Threlkeld’s Asheville home I feel as if I’ve entered a local art gallery, with one huge difference—these vibrant artifacts, weavings, carvings, photographs and prints are all pieces of her life, collected during her varied assignments around the globe. Her personal connection with them is reflected in their careful arrangement. Each has a story. A work by a local artist is among them.
How does one from the “outside” come to direct MANNA FoodBank, a local non-for profit with more than 1000 volunteers, responsible for gathering and distributing close to ten million pounds of food in 2011. After she was hired, Cindy learned that at first her application had been considered to be in the second tier of possible candidates; yet after many conversations and interviews with the search committee today she holds the post of Executive Director. Cindy says with a laugh, “I REALLY wanted the job.” Once Cindy sets her goals on something, it happens.
Articulate but soft spoken, Cindy explains that throughout her experiences in third world countries she learned more than she taught; despite her degrees in sociology, gerontology, and an MBA in nonprofit management, gained more than she brought, and invariably feels grateful toward her hosts.
She is humble and calm and yet you sense her strength and conviction. After living in Botswana, Costa Rica, the Philippines, Ecuador, Guatemala and Zambia, and holding the post of Acting Chief of Operations for the Africa Region, overseeing 1,789 Peace Corps volunteers in 27 countries, she returned and decided to put that expertise to good use in America. Believing that you cannot do effective work in a community until you are embedded in it, Threlkeld is working diligently on that aspect. She talks about “putting down roots” and has chosen Asheville as the place to make that happen.
Raised in a small farming community in rural Iowa with three brothers and sisters (one of whom she has already convinced to relocate to Asheville), Cindy began her worldwide adventures with books and the Weekly Reader magazines that her mother bought for her with the proviso that Cindy must promise to read them all. With her dad working in the family business and her mother volunteering at the local library, she was far from the precarious third world communities in which she would later place herself again and again. Her earliest awareness of hunger, human struggle and injustice, she recalls, came while reading Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, two classic novels with considerable power to rouse a conscience.
A word that comes up often as we talk is “community.” I ask how her life of social work began. She traces the path, mentioning her “surrogate grandparents” who lived next door. She began to consider a career in nursing, then sociology and gerontology, long before care of an aging baby boomer generation came into vogue.
Cindy cuts a striking figure at almost six feet tall, one who exudes calm, confidence, and patience. She is masterful in her understatement. In a world of bling and spin, Cindy is the real McCoy.
Asked to describe herself in one word she picks “determined.” Her mission? “To end hunger.”
Asked to explain the differences between hunger in the third world regions where she has worked and in the United States, the simplicity of her answers is startling. Hunger in Africa, she tells me, arises from droughts. From famine. From wars.
“In America, that is not the case, hunger has a cure: food. And we have plenty of it.” She explains that in Africa the distribution of that resource is handled equitably, “at least among the poor.” She uses the word “unfathomable” to describe our system of stockpiling food, and paints a picture of shopping carts filled to the brim inside the stores while those without remain just beyond the boundary. In Africa, she continues, “Even if you have no money, you can still survive. There is less of a cash economy; if you are poor, you can still build your own hut out of local resources and grow your own food. In America, that is nearly impossible.”
She speaks of children whose cognitive development is stunted by food deprivation—something that somehow seems less shameful if all children are equally deprived.
She mentions the increase in demand for the enormously successful MANNA Packs for Kids program, where qualifying at-risk school children are discreetly given a bag of food to bring home every Friday, helping ensure that they have something to eat over the weekend. She mentions that in the mountain regions school closings due to snow days increase the likelihood that at-risk children won’t have access to food until they can return to school. The same is true of summer vacations.
We talk about the many challenges of working in developing nations and the difficulty of seeing suffering families and children. I ask Cindy about some of the highlights of working for the Peace Corps; to my surprise, she talks about the “exit interviews” that were part of the Peace Corps end-of-assignment process. I imagine her listening to these volunteers, deeply satisfied that they too have been able to reap some of the “cosmic humility” that comes from fully embracing another culture—on their terms—and then bringing that understanding back to America to share. As someone who lived abroad for 15 consecutive years, I know exactly what she means.
MANNA had a long list of excellent candidates vying to take over its helm. “Why do you think they chose you?” She laughs and responds that, “Passion for my mission is what my life has been about.” Cindy’s passion is quiet but fierce.
Carol Pennell, an Asheville native and a member of the MANNA Board of Directors was on the search committee that ultimately chose Cindy. She sums up Cindy with the following words, “Whether as a Peace Corps director sitting with a tribal leader in an African village speaking about the loss of children to starvation or addressing the dire crisis of food hardship in our region, Cindy listens, embraces, and is determined to change lives and make a difference.” I ask several MANNA employees how they would sum up Cindy’s leadership style; three words come up repeatedly: transparency, inclusiveness and balance.
I once heard Cindy say, “You lead by following.” That is exactly what she did on June 7th, at around 1:10 am after Manna’s signature fundraiser ended. She rolled up her sleeves and joined the two remaining staff members on ladders in the MANNA parking lot unstringing tent lights. She was one of only three people still working on site after the 1000 guests and volunteers had gone home. It had been an extremely long day but she was not willing to go home until she had done everything she could to help wrap things up.
Her phrase about “leading by following” makes sense. She moved to Asheville not simply to take this job, but to “set down roots” and be an integral part of the community. In her time outside the office she explores the beauty of the region, kayaking, hiking, and wandering with her Cocker Spaniel Sophie, a certified “therapy dog” that Cindy takes to Mission hospital to visit oncology patients.
When I ask this world traveler what is the most beautiful place she has ever visited, her answer takes me by surprise: “Maybe the back country I saw yesterday in Yancey County.” She was there on an organized hike with the Swannanoa Valley Museum that led her into the Old Tom Wilson and Cane River Valley.
When I ask to name her most wonderful experience abroad, her answer astonishes me. In 1994 Cindy was asked by the United Nations to be an official observer of the first democratic elections in South Africa, THE epic election that officially ended apartheid—a moving and momentous period that she witnessed with the intimacy that only an insider could experience. She described this powerhouse of a day in poetic detail: Early that morning seeing the sun rise and the moon descending, suspended at exact parallel points like a scale—waiting for the verdict; the excitement of a historic empowerment of a people, some voting for the first time, some dressed in their frayed Sunday best, some barefoot. Lines miles long under a hot sun. People waiting to cast ballots that would regain their dignity and freedom.
She recalls the deep and soulful song that the poll worker team sang, like a hymn with hands joined, hers included, as the voting center closed. They exited in silence, bearing the ballot box, as if at a funeral. The death of apartheid. “It was the highlight of my life.”
Now in Asheville almost a year, how is Cindy building community on a personal level? She’s invited a group of local women, all executive directors, to meet at her home once a week to learn to play poker. My advice to those ladies? Just plan to enjoy the evening… If Cindy sets her sights on winning, count on having to work hard for your money!
Alisa Hixson is an advocate for local food, children’s and women’s issues and orchestrates special events to support them. She lives in north Asheville with her tween son and a gecko. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org