Before those who walk into the Muncie Mission’s pantry see a pink, green, orange or yellow number lying on sign-up sheets on a plastic foldable table, they see Charlotte McKnight’s blue eyes behind thin-rimmed, silver glasses.
With sunlight shining through stained glass windows providing the pantry with natural light, McKnight – usually wearing a Muncie Mission top, jeans and slip-on shoes – greets each customer by name, something she said is important to learn in order to build a unique connection with each client.
While they sit and wait to receive their food, either donated to the Mission by local churches/organizations or bought by the Mission’s staff, McKnight sits next to each person and treats them as if they were her neighbors. She said volunteering gives her, and those she works closely with, a sense of belonging.
“Some people just have a light inside them that shines and Charlotte’s is one that shines real bright,” Kelly Vannatter said.
Lory Nunn, family service director at Muncie Mission, called McKnight’s passion for her faith and for volunteering “contagious.”
“I would not want to be here if she wasn’t here,” Nunn said.
After retiring from 36 years of nursing at Ball Memorial Hospital, McKnight started volunteering at the Mission’s Attic Window thrift store. However, once her parents and husband became terminally ill, she had to give up volunteering so she could help take care of them before all three of their deaths came within three weeks of each other.
McKnight spent more time in a funeral home over the course of those three weeks than she ever did in her previous 69 years of life. And yet, she doesn’t remember what the rooms around Meeks Mortuary looked like.
She doesn’t remember what colors the walls were, how bright the lights were or what furniture and decor inhabited each room. She doesn’t remember the atmosphere, the temperature or the smell in the building. McKnight said it was just a fog.
“The funeral people said, ‘Are you here again?’” McKnight said. “When you get to know the mortician on a personal basis, you've known them too long.”
Even though she had been a Christian her entire life – she first met her husband when she was a 4-year-old at church – McKnight was entirely confused by the timing of the losses of the three most important people in her life.
“I questioned Him for a while,” McKnight said. “I tried to bargain with God and said, ‘If you'll just let my husband come back, I promise I will take care of him forever. I won't complain. I'll do everything I need to do.’ Of course, that was a silly thought; he wasn't coming back. But you have those thoughts, and you just don't want to let them go.”
Her husband, Darrell, suffered from melanoma, affecting his brain and bones so much so that his normal 180-pound frame fell below 100.
“He just gradually wasted away, I don’t know how else to say it,” McKnight said.
McKnight said Darrell was active for the majority of his life prior to his diagnosis, often going for long runs or walks as he got older. She still remembers the last walk they took together on a late February morning.
“I didn't think I was going to get him home,” McKnight said. “I had to hold him up by the belt of his pants to keep him from falling.”
The next day, he fell out of bed trying to start his day. McKnight made sure a hospital bed was then sent to their house to try and make things easier. She and Darrell were married nearly 50 years before his death.
Her mother, Doris Shock, suffered from dementia. While her father was in a hospital leading up to his death, Doris and Darrell were being taken care of by McKnight from the comfort of Charlotte’s own home. Eventually, she said she couldn’t handle taking care of both of them at the same time, moving her mother to Morrison Woods nursing home about a month before her death.
“My mother was so confused, she didn't really know me,” McKnight said. “She called me her friend, but she didn't remember what a daughter was and she didn't know my name.
“She didn't remember how to go to the bathroom. She didn't remember how to put her clothes on or comb her hair.”
Eventually, her mother developed congestive heart failure and died soon after. Darrell died April 2, 2016; Doris died April 4, 2016. Two weeks prior, her father, Derald Shock, died after failing to recover from a bad fall he took in his home.
“They were wonderful people,” McKnight said. “I still miss them; It's been seven years.”
Shortly after their deaths, Muncie Mission staff reached out to McKnight to share their condolences and ask if she would want to return to volunteering.
“I knew right then that that was my call to come back,” McKnight said. “If the Mission never called me back, I don’t know where I would be. It has saved my life.”
Soon after, she began working with the Mission’s family services department, mostly with its food pantry. McKnight said she feels like caregiving and helping those in need is her calling, something instilled in her from a young age when her mother worked at a mental hospital in New Castle, Indiana, when McKnight was a child.
She said volunteering fills the void in her life that was left when her husband and parents died. While she has children and grandchildren, they live either out of state or multiple hours away, so not even they can fill that space like those she helps while volunteering.
In addition to her work at the Mission, McKnight also helps volunteer with Muncie Southside’s Panther Pantry, an after-school food program that sends over 140 backpacks filled with food and supplies home with middle school students per week.
Vannetter, who helps in the free clothing room at the Mission, said when a volunteer has gone through struggles of their own like McKnight has, they can better relate to and better help serve those at risk, forging a bond unlike any other.
“It can be hard for us emotionally to bear that, having those bandages ripped off all the time,” Vannetter said. “But without exposing that injury, you're not going to connect with them.”
Vannetter said she sees McKnight’s efforts to build relationships with every person she comes into contact with as a volunteer. In a sense, Vannetter said McKnight becomes a member of their family, someone they may not have in their life.
Although Vannetter and Nunn often have to meet with clients in a small office with shelves crammed with materials and supplies, behind a desk cluttered with papers, pens, desktop computers, a candy bowl and more, Vannetter reminds herself to be as vulnerable as possible during these interactions.
To be for her clients who she needed by her side during her own times of struggle.
Vannetter experienced various different kinds of abuse throughout her early life, including a 15-year marriage to an alcoholic. She became a teen mom and was outcast by her former church after getting pregnant as a 16-year-old. Vannetter said she struggled to make enough money to provide for her household, facing potential homelessness.
“I understand what it's like to not know where your next meal is coming from,” Vannetter said. “I know what it's like to have people that are supposed to love you hurt you more than a stranger.”
When Vannetter was a child, going through abuse at home, she resorted to the church as a refuge. She was the only person in her family who attended, calling it a place of escape, and a place where she found acceptance before eventually being shunned.
Years later, she visited a school giveaway event hosted by a church and listened to those in attendance give testimony as to how God pulled them out of struggles. She felt an urge to share her story, too, and her faith was rekindled.
“I would rather believe in it and be wrong than to not believe in it and be wrong,” Vannetter said. “Life doesn't happen the way that mine has happened without divine intervention there.
“You don’t have to be a Christian or a faith-based person to be a good human being. It’s just common, human decency. You start there, and every day it’ll grow until you become a beacon of light without even knowing it.”
While Vannetter turned away from faith for a period of her life, McKnight said although she questioned God’s timing when the three most meaningful people in her life all died in less than a month, she never thought about giving up her Christianity. In fact, she said her faith has grown more in the last seven years than ever before.
“God became my companion,” McKnight said. “I still get down, don’t get me wrong, but I know who I can talk to.”
McKnight even leads a bible study at Cardinal Care nursing home, continuing to serve the elderly, like her late parents.
Nunn, sporting gold earrings in the shape of a heart with the word “faith” inscribed, said her belief in God has “kept her going” during the darkest periods of her life. Like Vannetter, Nunn went through abusive relationships in previous stages of her life. Additionally, she’s struggled with various health issues such as a battle with breast cancer; one she eventually won.
While Vannetter said she has been volunteering in her current capacity for 15 years, Nunn has been doing so for over 20. Nunn recognized the struggles of trying to be the best resource for her clients at the Mission while also battling her own trials.
She said her oldest child, Tamika Young, is going through breast cancer right now, but those she helps as a volunteer help her get through each day with a smile. Aside from her faith and her co-workers, Nunn said the volunteers she helps are her biggest source of support.
“There have been times that it got so overwhelming that I threw up my hands and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Nunn said. “Then I think about Paul or Bill or Alice or somebody that’s come into my office and shared with me. That keeps me going.”
Tears streamed down Vannetter’s face when she said volunteer work saved her life, too. Vannetter also experienced depression, but her’s went one step further, developing suicidal thoughts once she was given a discouraging diagnosis by a doctor.
The doctor told her she had degenerative disc disease, spinal deterioration disorder and fibromyalgia. In simple terms, Vannetter said the doctor told her these conditions were creating so much nerve damage in her back that it makes simple tasks painstaking. In the years since, she has had over 20 surgeries, including some to remove organs.
None of these conditions are curable, and doctors told her the most they could do was make the pain manageable. Following the diagnosis, Vannetter spent the next three months in her bed, rarely even feeling motivated to shower.
“I felt completely useless. I had no purpose left,” Vannetter said. “I thought about suicide all the time.”
Vannetter feels like God called her to volunteer during her lowest points to save her, rather than to save those she would be helping. She began to shift her focus from the list of physical restrictions she had to follow to the things that she was still able to do.
Vannetter realized she had to keep fighting for her life because there were at-risk members of the Mission who depended on her to turn their lives around.
“If I was not in a position to help people every day, I don’t think I would be here,” Vannetter said.
While the volunteers are enthusiastic about helping others and speak highly of the support the Mission receives, McKnight recognized they are always looking for more support. When she walked down to the basement of the Mission’s headquarters, milk crates, storage bins and shopping carts that are normally filled with food to give away sat empty.
In less than a month, the Mission plans to give away hundreds of free meals to community members during its annual Thanksgiving Community Dinner. Last year, more than 150 meals were served at the site, while about 370 meals were delivered to home-bound neighbors in the county.
Leigh Edwards, director of community engagement for the Mission, said the non-profit served 91,153 meals to residents of the Mission and other community guests in 2022. Additionally, the Mission assisted 1,352 families with food, clothing, hygiene and household items.
McKnight said those interested in volunteering or donating food items should call Edwards at 765-288-9122, ext. 109 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, those looking to give to the Mission in any capacity are called to participate in Giving Tuesday, a nationwide day of donation for all nonprofit organizations held Nov. 28, 2023.
McKnight encouraged those who haven’t volunteered before, or perhaps fell out of it like she did, to give it another chance. Not just because the Mission needs more donations and more volunteers, but so they can experience the same “blessing” she has.
So those potentially falling deeper into depression, like she was when she lost Darrell, Doris and Derald, can potentially turn their life around as they’re helping at-risk members of the public do the same.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at email@example.com or on X @KyleSmedley_.