Hometown Hero: Kathy Kovack used her military experience and business management to grow Clemmons Food Pantry
Published 12:10 am Thursday, November 10, 2022
Kathy Kovack knows she can never really step away from the Clemmons Food Pantry.
Though she “retired” from her role as the executive director in the summer — a volunteer role — Kovack will remain active with assisting at a place she helped make into what it is today.
“They were pretty sneaky and put me on the board for another six-year term,” Kovack said with a laugh. “I don’t know at that point if I’ll be worth anything or not, but we’ll see how it goes. I have a lot of time vested here and to just walk away would be a smack in the face to what we’ve built. I’m just stepping away from operations. I would never desert them. It’s part of who I am. And it’s the best job I’ve ever had.”
Kovack retired from the Army after a 20-year career in operations and began managing medical practices in her first job as a civilian. She moved to Clemmons in 2005 and joined Clemmons United Methodist Church, which just happened to be looking for volunteers at the time for a new project it was undertaking.
“They were collecting food and giving it away out of the trunk of someone’s car for a little while,” Kovack said. “That’s how this all got started.”
She began packing boxes of food as a volunteer in the early days, and after a few years, her responsibilities continued to increase because she loved being a part of what the pantry was doing.
“In 2011, a man that I really admired, Bob Miller, who was an outstanding volunteer, passed away. And I was going to write a check, but I knew that he would prefer that I give them more of my time. So, that’s when I upped my game,” Kovack said with a laugh. “I started going to grocery stores and picking up food. And I went to a board meeting and heard them discussing what they were looking for in an executive director and I felt called to do something more. I made them a proposal and they accepted it, and I retired and said, ‘Let’s do this.’”
Kovack has now helped to oversee all phases and operations of the growth of the pantry across three different buildings since she assumed the role of executive director in the spring of 2013.
New branding. New business model. More resources for food and making changes in the operations of how food was being distributed. A global pandemic.
“It had just come out from under the church’s umbrella and became an independent 501(c)(3). I had never run a non-profit before. I was going to help set up business practices but had no idea everything that was entailed with that — applying for a solicitation license, getting all of our legal work and insurances was a daily surprise,” Kovack said with a laugh. “Steve Eller, one of our board members, was at my elbow the whole time we were doing this.”
Eller nominated Kovack for the Governor’s Award for Volunteerism in 2020.
“Kathy Kovack is a warrior. As a veteran, she is always at the ready to help Clemmons Food Pantry…” Eller wrote in the nominating letter he shared with the Courier. “…She keeps all things pantry afloat. Kathy is on the operations committee, finance committee, marketing committee, fundraising committee, building committee and programs committee to help keep all things moving toward the greater good of the pantry… Kathy regularly meets volunteer groups at the pantry to keep schools, churches and businesses involved in our mission. She arranges work for them and keeps it all flowing without disrupting regular pantry activities… I have worked with non-profits for years, and Kathy is head and shoulders above any paid employee I have encountered. If she demanded a salary, we could not afford her.”
The first location that was not in the trunk of a car was a space in Meadowbrook Mall, which it quickly outgrew. Then it moved to a second facility on Old Glory Road before finding its current home on Neudorf Road.
“When I first started volunteering at the pantry, we occupied a small space in the old K-Mart complex,” said Cathy Ober, a longtime volunteer with the pantry. “It didn’t seem like many people knew about our mission. Kathy went out into the community and spread the word about us by talking to church groups, businesses, and social groups. In turn, the community stepped up and supported us with food drives and monetary donations. As we outgrew each location, Kathy was able to secure the necessary support from the Clemmons community for the pantry to be able to take the next step. Clemmons Food Pantry would not be in our wonderful new facility without all the endless work of Kathy Kovack.”
Kovack said she will look back fondly on a lot of the successes and ever a few blunders, which she still laughs about.
“Oh, the book sale, for one,” she said. “Someone donated a lot of books for us to sell as a fundraiser. And we moved those books four or five different times — we’re talking about 2,000 pounds of books — and barely cleared the expense on it. Not our finest moment.”
And what about one of her fondest memories?
“Well, there was this turkey giveaway one year and this bus brought us a group of elderly people,” Kovack said. “One of them was this tiny little lady. She was in line and when she came to get her turkey — and remind you, it’s 27 degrees outside — and we gave her the turkey and she just clutched it and kept bowing to us and thanking us and crying. Someone handed her a bag of fixings to go with the turkey and she just lost it. She wanted to hug everybody. It took her 10 minutes to get her back on her bus because she was just so appreciative. I remember Dan O’Shea said, ‘I’m not going to be the first to cry’ and Steve Eller said, ‘I already am.’ It was just one of those moments that fills your heart and sticks with you.”
Derrick Webb, a former board president of the pantry, was effusive in his praise for Kovack.
“Caring, dedicated and hardworking are just the few words that come to mind when thinking of Kathy,” Webb said. “In my four years of serving on the Clemmons Food Pantry Board, I’ve never seen someone so committed to creating a community at the pantry. As the executive director, she went above and beyond to help clients and volunteers. The phrase, “ask Kathy” was often heard on any given day or hour and Kathy was always quick with the answer, as she knew all of the inner workings of the Pantry. She was more than a volunteer; she was the heart and soul of the Clemmons Food Pantry.”
Count Debi Boyce, another longtime board member and volunteer, as a big supporter of all Kovack has done.
“Kathy has been the most hardworking and committed person to the mission and operations of the Clemmons Food Pantry that I know,” Boyce said. “She was engaged with everyone, no matter a volunteer, client, board member, vendor or media person. She was willing to step in for any situation, be it establishing policy, problem solving, procuring rental trucks and storage units, managing hundreds of frozen turkeys, budgets, capital campaigns or on hands and knees cleaning. As the pantry has grown, she oversaw moves to larger facilities and the design and construction of a new building.”
Mike Sullivan is the new executive director and marveled at the work Kovack has done.
“Kathy intended to step down in 2020,” Sullivan said. “Then, we learned about COVID-19, and she put her plans on hold. Clemmons Food Pantry did not miss a service day during the pandemic — except for snowstorms! We pivoted immediately in March 2020 to help people who were also disoriented by shutdowns and food shortages. During the pandemic, we directly provided over one million pounds of fresh and shelved food to more than 10,000 different residents.”
Kovack said that she will miss the people she was worked with the most.
“That’s always the best part of it,” she said. “It’s always a feel-good moment for everybody to see our clients come in and get food. And when you see our volunteers working so hard to get food into the hands of those who need it, they will just push themselves to get things done. It’s all those people behind the scenes who make this place go.”