Arundel food bank chief helps those needing a second chance

Medical bills and other expenses strained Race Rudd Sr.'s finances, so replacing his broken-down car was beyond his means.

In an imperfect arrangement, he relied on a friend to ferry him between his home in Odenton and his job as cook at the Hope House, a substance abuse treatment facility in Crownsville. One day, he told the head of the Anne Arundel County Food & Resource Bank, a Hope House neighbor where he picked up food for the treatment center, that he sure could use wheels.

Bruce Michalec, the food bank's executive director, said, "'I'm not in the car business, but I'll look out for one for you,'" Rudd recalled.

That Christmas Eve, Michalec stood on the food bank's loading dock and pointed out a maroon 1992 Buick LeSabre in the lot to Rudd.

"He said, 'See that? That's your Christmas present,'" Rudd said. "It was truly a godsend."

Cooking lunch twice a week as a volunteer at the food bank, he said, doesn't repay Michalec's help.

"If I need food, I can get it from him," said Rudd, 58, who with emphysema and heart ailments relies on disability payments for his income. "How many doctor's appointments would I have not made if not for him?"

For 27 years, Michalec has been the guiding force of the Anne Arundel County Food & Resource Bank. At 74, he still works a six-day week.

"He is a true success story. [The food bank] started from nothing, and he has worked like a trooper to grow and expand the thing," said Sylvia Jennings, the food bank's founding board president and currently a director. This month, at the board's annual meeting, Michalec was honored for his 27 years of service to the food bank — and his birthday.

Michalec, whose previous work experience includes a stint in the Army Medical Corps in the 1960s as well as work in restaurant operations and shoe stores, launched the food bank in 1986 in a church building as a way to distribute federal surplus food to the needy.

Over the years under his guidance, it has mushroomed into an operation that annually gives away more than $1.25 million in food and nearly $150,000 in medical supplies and furniture.

Its clients include soup kitchens, shelters, families whose cupboards are bare, homeless individuals getting back on their feet, recovering addicts and, increasingly, people who have fallen from the middle class during the rough economy.

Michalec credits the generosity of the others for helping to make it run: Schoolchildren, community groups, businesses and individuals come to the center to donate items and, sometimes, money. The food and resources bank is a nonprofit that gets about $100,000 a year from the county, helping to cover Michalec's salary and that of a few staffers.

"It's amazing how good people are to me," Michalec said, walking through the food bank on the grounds of the state's now-closed Crownsville Hospital Center.

The building used to be the complex's kitchen. Now the 30,000-square-foot facility has items such as soup, soap, breakfast cereals and pizza sauce — even motorized scooters available for disabled clients. A hotel, Michalec said, wants to donate 1,500 pieces of furniture, if only he had somewhere to store them.

Those in need are thankful for Michalec's effort, but current and former prison inmates are among his biggest fans.

"He helped me get my life straight," said Lawrence Totty, 34, of Brooklyn Park. For seven months, the food bank was Totty's work-release position from the county jail.

He said when he finished his sentence for theft, Michalec gave him a paying job, toiletries, a bed and more.

"On Oct. 2, I'll celebrate two years clean, something I haven't been able to do since I was 13," said Totty, recovering from an addiction to painkillers.

"I couldn't have done it without him," he said of Michalec. "This place has given me a purpose."