Rufus Riggs lives to serve others. He’s been that way all of his life.
The Cataula, Ga., resident served his nation for nearly decades in the U.S. Army, rising to command sergeant major, which included time spent with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The Louisiana native then retired and moved to Columbus, where he served local residents, ultimately becoming director of the city’s Public Services Department, retiring nine years ago.
Today, Riggs, 73, serves the elderly population of Columbus, volunteering to help keep them fed through the nonprofit organization, Brown Bag of Columbus, of which he now is chairman of its board. Velma Feliciano is director of Brown Bag, which will turn 30 years old next year.
Serving, it seems, is second nature to Riggs, who grew up “poor” in southwest Louisiana where neighbors helped neighbors and family members stood by each other through thick and thin.
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. I firmly believe that,” he said of helping others in a recent interview. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why God put me here, so I can do this work.”
Brown Bag is always looking for volunteers to help out, while the organization also needs money, just as any nonprofit does. If you can help, contact Brown Bag at 706-596-8581 or via its website, www.brownbagofcolumbus.org.
The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Riggs to discuss his labor of love, how he became involved, and what it’s like pulling together an operation that puts food in the stomachs of Columbus and Phenix City residents one week a month (Monday through Thursday), doing so out of extra space at Eastern Heights Baptist Church. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. What do you do as a volunteer?
A. I do whatever’s necessary, from taking the trash out to cleaning the bathroom to picking up groceries from the stores where we buy from to delivering groceries to people, from bringing the stuff in and stacking it on the shelves. Whatever needs to be done, if there’s a need, I will do that.
Q. Why did you become involved in Brown Bag?
A. My background is not a background of privilege. I grew up very poor. Many of my aunts and uncles, when they got older, they didn’t struggle to feed themselves, but they also didn’t have any extra money. They lived from one month to the next, with no discretionary income. Because of how they grew up, they were resourceful and they were also very frugal. Most of them grew up during the Depression era and if you’ve been around people who grew up in the Depression, that’s the mentality that they have — waste not, want not — because they had nothing when they were growing up.
The elderly, most of them work hard throughout their lives … Many of my aunts did domestic work. So by doing domestic work, they had no retirement. My uncles, many of them worked labor-type work, which was not a lot of money. And for them when Social Security started, they never amassed a large Social Security account. For them, it was a matter of working all their lives, working physical work, ’til the end. My father worked until he was 80 and then he said, I think I’ve worked long enough.
Q. This organization resonates with you?
A. It does. It strikes a chord with me that there are people who struggle everyday. So when I saw an ad about food for the elderly and helping, I got the number and told my wife I think perhaps I can help … I started volunteering by delivering. I took my lunch hour (while working for the city) and delivered eight bags of groceries to people who were shut in, who had no transportation to come and pick up a bag of groceries. I did that until I retired and then started volunteering more because I had more time to be involved. I retired from the city nine years ago in May.
Q. Wouldn’t it have been easy for you to retire and simply enjoy traveling or other such things?
A. God has been very good to me. I’m in excellent health. So with my health, and with the discretionary income that we have, some of that I give to Brown Bag. That’s my main volunteer focus. What resonates with me with Brown Bag is that every dime we get goes into the program. No matter how many miles I put on my car or how many gallons of gas I burn, or any of the other volunteers, nobody’s compensated.
Q. Volunteering comes from the heart?
A. Yes. The executive director is not paid. She’s been there since the inception, for 29 years, and she only retired from work about four years ago. And it’s a mission. We all have these beliefs. I believe that I was put on this Earth to help people, in my service to the military, in my service with the city. I believe that was my mission to help people, and that continues today. Nothing satisfies me more when I can see that I have helped someone.
Q. Is Brown Bag simply an extension of your experience in the military and the city in terms of helping others?
A. I think that we are all a product of our backgrounds. My parents and my family are a very close-knit family. If one of my uncles or someone in the community needed someone – I grew up on a farm – then we helped. Because that person is in need, we’re going to go and help them. You see similar things with the Amish raising barns. Those are the type of things that we did. If someone needed something, we were there for them.
Q. How badly is Brown Bag needed in Columbus?
A. We serve about 400 people a month.
Q. That sounds somewhat low for a city this size?
A. There’s a bigger need, but because of how we operate, our funding will not allow us to expand in numbers. We are funded through donations from churches, individuals and some corporations. Because we are a nonprofit that doesn’t serve everyone who is need, we do not qualify for getting food from Feed the Valley. If we get USDA products, anyone who needs can come in and we’re required to serve them. We serve those 62 years and older.
Q. More donations would allow you to expand services?
A. If we had more donations and more monetary contributions, yes. If we had more, we could. Most of the products we give, we buy from grocery stores. What we try to do is find things that will supplement the needs of the people we serve, and find things that have sales on them, discounts on them. We like to do that as much as we can.
Q. What type of food do you provide people?
A. We try to give them about 14 or 15 items every month. We give them bread. We try to give them eggs, when they’re reasonable (in price). We give them potatoes, rice, mac and cheese, green beans, corn. We’ll give them some kind of meat, breakfast sausages or other kinds of sausages, bacon, margarine or spread, corn meal or flour. Sometimes we’ll give them fruit, such as bananas. We don’t give milk or orange juice because we don’t have the capacity to store it … We’ll have 70 to 80 people come in on one day. To have storage space for 70 quarts of milk, that’s a lot of refrigeration space. We do have some freezers (for meats) and we try to keep things frozen until just before the recipients come through and get those items.
Q. The program works out of Eastern heights Baptist Church?
A. On the back side of that lot is the building that we use, the bottom floor of that building. We pay some of the utilities because we use water and lights, and we pay for our own phone … We’ve been there, I would say, for 10 or more years. It’s a good location with availability for parking for those who can drive there or have someone bring them.
Q. How does the distribution work?
A. The way we operate is set things up on a shelf in a room, and we try to in many instances give the person a choice. For example, black-eyed peas or pork and beans, or creamed corn or whole kernel corn. We try to give choices because not everybody likes the same thing. It also gives them a feeling of independence.
Q. And you put the food literally in a brown paper bag?
A. When they come in, we’ll take it to another area, we’ll bag it up in a brown bag, and we’ll assist them by carrying it out to their vehicles. Many of them would not be able to carry a bag of groceries out.
Q. Of the 400 people you assist each month, how many receive food delivery at their homes?
A. We deliver to about 100. That’s here in Columbus and Phenix City. We have about 60 people in Phenix City that we serve. We have about 100 that’s shut in.
Q. Describe the people who receive items. Do you know of their life situations?
A. We don’t ask them that. What we do is verify their needs. We say we need to see your income. Show us your income tax form, proof of your income, and then show us your expenses. If someone has a car payment and they’re paying $400 or $500 a month, it’s like, OK, maybe you’re making some bad choices.
Q. Not everyone is accepted?
A. No. We had a woman come in last month and after she paid all of her expenses, I think she had about $350 left over. Well, with $350, if you can’t feed yourself on that you’re doing something wrong.
Q. Have you ever had a volunteer who tugged at your heart, especially one you visited?
A. I deliver to 23 people. I take 23 bags of groceries, put them into my vehicle and take them to their homes and take it inside to them. Some of them, I’ve been serving them for 10 or 12 years. So we develop a relationship. I’ll go inside their home and ask them how they’re doing. I had surgery on my shoulder a few years ago and I delivered to them and (they asked me) ‘what happened to you?’ And they will give me a hug and say ‘I’m going to pray for you that you recover.’
Q. So you do bond with them?
A. Absolutely. One of the things I try to do is call them two days before I come to make sure they’re going to be home, because they may have a doctor’s appointment or be doing something. If they’re not home, I can’t leave the bag there because it will disappear. That, too, helps develop the personal contact.
Q. It’s almost as if you’re somewhat like a welfare check on them?
A. I view it as doing God’s work. Taking care of others is one of the things that I believe that all of us human’s on this Earth should try to do. And I just try to do my part. I cannot influence or have everyone to believe what I believe or do what I do. But that is the most gratifying thing that I do, is to know that I’m doing something for someone who needs my help.
Q. That’s the most rewarding thing for you?
A. The most rewarding is to know that I’m doing something to help somebody who can eat and not have to worry about they’re going to eat tomorrow.
Q. How many volunteers are part of Brown Bag?
A. We have about 50 or 60 people. One of the things is they’re all volunteers and sometimes you cannot depend upon them being there when they say they will be there. Last Tuesday, we had more people than we needed. On Wednesday, we didn’t have enough people. So we try to coordinate it all, and people have lives, we understand that. Whenever a volunteer can come, we welcome them.
Q. What would make the program even more successful?
A. Our greatest challenge is funding — to have enough money so that we know we will be able to continue the program for a long time. We don’t have an endowment where we have thousands of dollars sitting there generating interest so that we know this is going to come in every month. We don’t have that.
Q. What’s the budget each year?
A. We spend about $70,000 a year.
Q. That seems like a low amount for a nonprofit program?
A. It’s not much in the grand scheme of things. When you need money and you get $1,000 here and $300 here and $100 here, and maybe $500 from someplace else, it’s hard getting those dollars.
Q. Could you boost the funding?
A. We have fund-raisers. We do yard sales and other things, and people support those. But the hardest thing to tap into is corporation donations.
Q. You could use a major company or two to come forward?
A. Yes. We have approached some, and some have nonprofit foundations that they support. Corporations in this community are very, very generous in many areas. They support a lot of things, and I understand they can’t support everything. But, yes, we could certainly use some corporate benefactors (tell us they) support this with X amount of dollars a year.
Q. The bottom line, however much you receive, every penny goes to the elderly people receiving the food?
A. That’s right. That’s what has endeared me to this program.
Q. Finally, is it important for people to volunteer to stay involved and connected in their communities?
A. Stay connected in the community, volunteer at some organization. Nonprofits, most of them, rely on volunteer help.
What it does, it asks people to appreciate and understand things from another person’s perspective. When you step out of your comfort zone and go in an area that you’re not familiar with, then you see things differently from what you see everyday.
Q. So you’ll be helping out with Brown Bag until the end?
A. As long as physically I can do it, I will.
Hometown: Raised out in the country near the southwest Louisiana town of Opelousas
Current residence: Cataula, Ga., in Harris County
Previous jobs: Served 28 years in the U.S. Army, starting as an infantryman and rising to command sergeant major, including a stint with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; and worked 17 years in the Columbus Public Services Department, working in various jobs before becoming director of public services
Education: Earned liberal arts degree from Western New England College in 1989
Family: Wife, Annette; two grown children, daughter, Heather Smith, and son, Antonio Riggs; five grandchildren and one great-grandchild
Leisure time: Enjoys doing woodworking, reading, watching sports and volunteering