Citizen of the Year: Mimi Forbes

The Food Pantry’s irrepressible, irreplaceable director is the Rappahannock News’ choice for 2015

Mimi Forbes marshalls the Food Pantry's "minions" — volunteers who showed up for two days of packing and loading Christmas dinners for Pantry clients earlier this week — into typically Mimi-esque formation.
Mimi Forbes marshalls the Food Pantry’s “minions” — volunteers who showed up for two days of packing and loading Christmas dinners for Pantry clients earlier this week — into typically Mimi-esque formation. Roger Piantadosi

Mimi Forbes is a force of nature. The director of the Rappahannock Food Pantry has a welcoming smile so bright and so real that she can create sunshine on a cloudy day for customers and volunteers alike. The Rappahannock News’ Citizen of the Year for 2015, she blows away worries with hurricane force, floods troubles with sympathy, washes away despair with care and warms hearts with compassion.

In the six years since the pantry opened, Mimi has turned the little building next door to the Washington School into part grocery, part community resource center and part comfort station. Patrons not only take home eggs, milk and bread, but also clothing vouchers for the Thrift Shop, the phone number for a give-away refrigerator, information on a job opening, instructions for curing a sick goat or simply well wishes to get through a tough stretch. Mimi is not only the pantry’s director and only paid employee — she’s a one-person directory to all the sources of help in the county. And maybe most important of all, she offers comfort, encouragement, a shoulder to lean on, a friendly ear and a warm hug.

Mimi sets the tone, and she has made the Rappahannock Food Pantry an integral thread in the safety net people point to when they talk about the county’s culture of caring.

“She’s the heart and soul of the pantry,” said the organization’s president, Noel Laing. “Mimi knows everyone, and she treats everyone exactly the same. She knows who’s sick, she knows all the children by name, and at Christmas, she makes sure that needy families have gift packages for the kids. And she recruits volunteers like nobody I’ve ever seen. People flock to the food pantry to help.”

An independent nonprofit funded primarily by local donations, the pantry serves more than 9,000 shoppers annually. Families with children may come in three times a month for staples and days in between for bread and produce. An out-of-work dad could be a regular for a year and then, once a job is landed, return as a volunteer. A 75-year-old retired farm worker with a big garden could shop once a month over the winter and then deliver vegetables during the summer growing season. “Some of our people just need help when an emergency puts an extra strain on finances or when the cupboard starts to run bare,” explained Mimi. She knows the pantry’s customers by name, she knows their stories, and when she’s missed a familiar face for a few weeks, she’ll investigate, and if there’s a transportation issue, say, she’ll arrange food delivery until the problem is resolved.

Mimi Forbes with her inseparable companions Gaby (front) and Daisy in the Food Pantry's front yard.
Mimi Forbes with her inseparable companions Gaby (front) and Daisy in the Food Pantry’s front yard. Daphne Hutchinson

The pantry is open three days a week, and in addition, more than 200 holiday boxes are filled with all the fixings for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and distributed in a carefully choreographed two-day drive-through. Before that assembly line delivery, Mimi matches sign-up sheets with the pantry’s client roster, then personally calls all regular shoppers to make sure they didn’t miss the holiday opportunity by accident.

Mimi can do it all because she is a master of volunteer management. She leads a volunteer force, 175 strong, who give almost 6,000 hours a year. They escort shoppers on their rounds, empty the weekly truck from the Blue Ridge Food Bank that brings USDA commodities, fill those holiday boxes, deliver to shut-ins, stock shelves, and make the weekly pickups at Trader Joe’s in Charlottesville, Wegman’s in Gainesville, Panera in Reston and the Food Lions in Warrenton and Marshall. They log in the donations from food drives, the high school’s Farm to Table program, Mountainside Montessori School, Waterpenny Farm, the Farm at Sunnyside and individual gardeners who “plant a row for the hungry.” Other volunteers work behind the scenes, organizing fundraisers and food drives, cooking for the annual benefit dinner, keeping the books, taking inventory and handling other administrative chores. “We couldn’t manage without them,” Mimi added. “Our volunteers do so much and they give so much that I could never list it all.”

They give because Mimi ensures the pantry’s volunteers know that they make a difference. She finds the right person for every pantry chore, she overpays in appreciation and she gives clear and concise instructions even in the midst of chaos. Growing up in a large family, she’s accustomed to taking charge, but nicely, and as the pantry’s Miss Saucy Bossy Pants, she does just that. Meanwhile, Mimi’s Minions (as the volunteers call themselves) happily obey.

A Hoosier by birth, an adventurer by nature and an interior designer by profession, Mimi had galleries, gift shops and design businesses from France to the Bahamas and from California to Virginia before settling in the Blue Ridge foothills. She discovered Rappahannock on a visit to a friend’s, and it didn’t take her long to find her spot at Lilac Farm in Castleton, her hillside haven in shades of purple. With the help of her inseparable companions, Gaby the terrier and Daisy the collie, both rescued from the Rappahannock Animal Welfare League, she gardens in the off hours when she isn’t directing the pantry and designing interiors. Deeply spiritual, Mimi also fits church and religious life into her calendar and still finds time for book club meetings, swimming with the Water Lilies and social gatherings and events where she’s the public face of the pantry.

“Mimi Forbes is the essence of what our Rappahannock Food Pantry is all about,” said Bev Hunter, civic activist and pantry supporter. “She is about giving. She is about community. And our food pantry is not just about food. It is about health, and families, and fun, and sharing who we are with others. If someone needs help to feed their family, they don’t need to worry about ‘taking charity.’ Mimi will make sure they feel like a contributing part of the community.”

“Mimi says she wants to stay at the pantry for the rest of her life,” reported Hal Hunter, the catalyst behind the pantry’s establishment and a former president of the nonprofit organization. “Clients and volunteers hope she does. In Rappahannock, she’s the closest thing we have to irreplaceable.”

Citizens of the Year, 1978-2014

Rappahannock News’ Citizen of the Year: “In recognition of those men and women whose outstanding leadership and accomplishments in the public interest have left an indelible mark upon the history of Rappahannock County.”

Below is the complete list of all past winners (no award was presented in 2011):

1978 — Eva Smith

1979 — Herbert Barksdale & Mary B. Quaintance

1980 — Rachel Aylor

1981 — Mr. & Mrs. William Carrigan

1982 — Howard & Helen Holschuh

1983 — Don & Judy Bomberger

1984 — Mr. & Mrs. James P. Jamieson

1985 — William A. Buntin

1986 — Rayner V. Snead

1987 — Roger Roach

1988 — Phil Irwin

1989 — James W. Fletcher

1990 — Frances Thornton

1991 — Maurice O’Bannon

1992 — Rev. Jennings W. Hobson III

1993 — Marie Davis

1994 — Barbara Gentry

1995 — Paul Nichols

1996 — Louise Van Dort

1997 — Col. J. Stewart Willis

1998 — John Hartline

1999 — The Fletcher Family

2000 — John W. McCarthy

2001 — Charles K. “Pete” Estes

2002 — Patrick O’Connell & Reinhardt Lynch

2003 — Dr. Werner Krebser

2004 — Ann Spieker

2005 — Wendy Weinberg

2006 — Bob Lander

2007 — Bill & Linda Dietel

2008 — Claudia Mitchell

2009 — Hal & Beverly Hunter

2010 — Richard Lykes (posthumous)

2012 — Noel Laing & Lilo Foster

2013 — Doug Baumgardner & Lillian Aylor

2014 — Rev. Jennings W. Hobson III