Karen Cole felt the need to break away.

Since she did, things have broken loose.

Cole is the president of Portland’s Hands of Hope, which provides food assistance to area families.

“It was my vision,” Cole said. “I started to feed people out of my home. We started to take care of people at Thanksgiving with turkeys and things like that, and it went into Christmas. It was a little group of women, taking care of everybody.

“We came up with the name Hands of Hope. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger. We decided we needed a building. Then, in two weeks, we had to get a bigger building.”

Cole was previously involved with another segment of area residents who were lending a helping hand.

“I was with another group of people who were doing the same type of thing,” Cole said. “I wanted to venture off and do more of the food aspect. They were doing clothes and a variety of things. I decided to focus on the food aspect.”

The organization has only been functioning since January.

“We had a Facebook group, so we had a big following already,” Cole said. “Everybody was excited about getting it open. We started in the basement of my house. We have been servicing approximately 300 houses a week.”

Assistant director Rachel Harmon has also been pleasantly surprised by the dramatic growth.

“It’s way more than we ever thought it would be,” Harmon said. “We started out in a basement serving about 15-18 families. Moving into the second building, we went up to about 50 families. Now, we serve 300 a week. It increases every day.”

Three days per week, Hands of Hope allows Portland residents to come in and shop in its in-house grocery store. One or two people shop at one time, in 15-minute increments. That is open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. until noon, and then from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. on Thursdays.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cole said. “It’s beautiful. We have a lot of people in tears who get to shop for their food instead of giving them a box. Everybody gets what they need. We have everything. They will not leave here without getting food, and we do hygiene (products).”

The organization operates thanks to donations from individuals and food donations from area grocery stores. Some supporters will shop and give Hands of Hope items to distribute, and grants also help to provide money for the organization.

“We have a big support group,” Cole said. “A lot of people have adopted us and take care of us every week. We’ve been very blessed.”

The set-up is similar to the Store, a Nashville entity started by Brad Paisley. The Store operates as a year-round, free grocery store that allows people to shop for their basic needs in order to supplement their income during times of crisis and as they work toward self-sufficiency.

“Our’s is similar to that,” Cole said. “We have hooked up with them. They have donated to us. We get about 100 gallons of milk a week from them.”

In March, the organization began to deliver hot food plates for the elderly and shut-ins each Wednesday. That consists of approximately 100 meals that are delivered each week.

Volunteers prepare the food.

“You don’t see that much anymore,” Hands of Hope secretery Toni DuVerger said. “People are too busy. They have too much going on in their lives.

“We get more and more added, because it’s word of mouth.”

The reaction of the residents who receive the hot meals has been one of gratitude.

Harmon said that some of the residents will say, “ ‘Come here and let me give you a kiss.”

Cole added, “The first thing is a God bless you. We get a, ‘Bless you and thank you so much.’ We get hugs. They look forward to it. Sometimes, they are out waiting for us. It is beautiful.”

However, that’s not all of the prepared meals that the organization has provided.

During Sumner County Schools’ spring break week in early March, Hands of Hope prepared meals for students who are accustomed to having meals provided for them at school. School never resumed following spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the delivering of those meals lasted for more than two months, until late May.

Each Monday, Hands of Hope would provide a week’s worth of lunches for students.

“They were very grateful,” Cole said. “Everybody was extrememly happy.”

DuVerger added, “They were grateful for everything we’ve done and what we’ve provided.”

With many losing jobs during the current pandemic, Hands of Hope has been able to provide assistance for families going through those types of situations.

“It’s a lot of people who have jobs, and they’ll call and say, ‘I just lost my job,’ ” Cole said. “ ‘What can I do to get food for our families?’ ”

Many of those Hands of Hope volunteers can relate to what those families are going through.

“Because we know what it is to be hungry and be without, we don’t like seeing it in our community,” Harmon said. “We wanted to do something about it.”

Cole added, “Every single person who volunteers, we all have struggled. We all have things that have come up in life. We’re the misfits of life … but we hustle.”

The organization received a $5,000 grant from the Arby’s Foundation in mid-June, and Shane Lame — the pastor of Portland’s Mt. Moriah General Baptist Church — helped set up a GoFundMe account in an attempt to raise more funds for the purchase of a van.

“We’re just going to keep on trucking,” Cole said. “Who knows what is going to happen. I don’t know what is going to happen. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

“We’ve had to branch out and gather people and given them different projects. In a short amount of time, we’ve done a lot.”

Most recently, Portland’s Food Lion donated $1,000 worth of gift cards, which Hands of Hope turned into groceries for its 15 volunteers to stock the pantry.

“There’s not enough thank yous,” DuVerger said.

Cole added, “This community has totally embraced us. You can’t put it into words (what the support means). There’s no way I can possibly thank everybody enough. It’s amazing the people who have supported us. It means the world to us.”

Hands of Hope doesn’t know what the continual growth will result in, but it’s not steering clear from its mission.

“We do have a saying … it’s all about spreading hope one hand at a time,” Cole said. “That’s on our wall … on our letterhead. That’s about all we do.”

DuVerger added, “We give a family hope. They don’t have to worry about their child eating dinner that night. We give them the inspiration of the fact that there is hope out there.”

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