Rowlands named co-Citizens of the Year for Christian Outreach service

Published 3:00 pm Wednesday, December 20, 2023

This year, Smithfield will have not one but two “Citizens of the Year.”

Husband and wife Christian Outreach volunteers Rick and Cheryl Rowlands will share the award Smithfield’s Ruritan and Rotary clubs have given annually for 53 years to an outstanding area resident.

Isle of Wight’s Christian Outreach Program began in 1991 when a group of local church members and businesses set themselves the task of raising money to help families in need with winter heating costs. Its inaugural homemade soup fundraiser, “Souper Saturday,” continues to this day every October. Since 2014, the nonprofit has been headquartered on Grace Street in the former Isle of Wight County Health Department office, where it collects and distributes free food, furniture, diapers, children’s books and other forms of emergency assistance.

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The Rowlands joined COP in 2020 as volunteers. Since 2021, Rick has served as the nonprofit’s executive director, while Cheryl has become a co-leader of the organization’s food distribution and “Food For Thought” children’s book distribution programs.

COP Treasurer Ed Hipp described the Rowlands as going “above and beyond” week after week.

“We’re basically open three days a week,” Hipp told The Smithfield Times. “They’re working seven days a week.”

According to Volunteer Coordinator Cris Lawrence, Rick has implemented a series of operational changes in the wake of the 47% increase in food insecure clients that has occurred over the past three years. Now, the roughly 600 recipients COP serves per month need not exit their cars to pick up supplies.

“Food carts are efficiently set up according to family size,” Lawrence said. “Teams are in place to pick up donated food several days a week from two Food Lion stores and the Smithfield Kroger, plus a once- or twice-a-month pickup from the Southeastern Virginia Foodbank in Norfolk. Rick and Cheryl travel every week to a day-old bread warehouse in Newport News to pick up bread for distribution.”

Lawrence further credits Cheryl with a roughly 11% uptick in the number of diapers and an 80% uptick in the number of books distributed over the past three years.

According to COP’s website, there are typically 13 age-appropriate books per child available in middle-income communities. But in low-income areas, the ratio drops to one book per 300 children.

In hopes of reversing the trend, COP encourages its food and diaper program recipients to take home two free books per child each month. During Cheryl’s tenure, the number of clients seeking and receiving help with rent and utility bills has also more than tripled.

Hipp calls Rick a “jack of all trades.” He said Rick is the organization’s in-house mechanic and computer expert.

When the increase in the number of clients necessitated the purchase of high-cost equipment to meet demand, Rick was “wholly instrumental” in the purchase and installation of a walk-in refrigerator, refurbished computers and a used 2020 Ford Transit van to replace an old truck that had broken down, Lawrence said.

She also credits Rick with the organization’s receipt of a $60,000 grant and subsequent purchase of a refrigerated van, as well as renovations to the old health department building that included new lighting and enclosing the old loading dock to create a storage area for paper goods.

“All of the above increases, initiatives, and improvements, all under Rick and Cheryls’ watch, have done nothing but enhance the lives of everyone in the great county of Isle of Wight – folks are fed with over 40 pounds of food per month (Food Program); homes have been improved for the safety of the residents (Home Repair Program); eviction and cut-off notices have been discarded and folks stay in their homes as we assist in paying down those bills (Emergency Services Program),” Lawrence said.

Larry Saint, chairman of the Rotary and Ruritan clubs’ Citizen of the Year Committee and himself a past recipient of the award, surprised Rick and Cheryl Rowlands on Dec. 11 by announcing them as this year’s recipients while they were working at the Christian Outreach building. The Rowlands join Mill Swamp Indian Horses founder Steve Edwards, former Smithfield Mayor Carter Williams, Smithfield Times Publisher Emeritus John B. Edwards and the late Segar “Sig” Cofer Dashiell, author of “Smithfield A Pictorial History,” and other past recipients of the award.

The Rowlands will be honored with a dinner, typically held in March at The Smithfield Center.