COVID-19 hit the Orlando Bishops’ Storehouse with a two-fisted combo when it arrived in Florida early last year.
First, the pandemic exacted a heavy economic toll, leaving many local Latter-day Saint families and others in need of food and other provisions. The Orlando storehous services were needed more than ever.
Simultaneously, the pandemic undercut the essential volunteer labor force the storehouse requires to operate.
Virus-vulnerable senior missionaries had little choice but to discontinue their callings. Many were released. Meanwhile, the reliable corps of volunteers from nearby wards, which traditionally includes many older Latter-day Saints, was also temporarily disrupted.
Elder Stan Aron and Sister Cynda Aron, who have co-managed the Orlando Bishops’ Storehouse for almost two decades, worked closely with their area ecclesiastical leaders to remedy the volunteer shortages.
“We were asked, ‘What do you think about using the full-time missionaries?’” remembered Elder Aron.
Florida Orlando Mission President Darren Ashcraft leaped at the opportunity for his young sisters and elders to serve folks in their respective areas at a time of desperate need. The missionaries were also eager to leave their apartments following a long quarantine period.
Soon shifts of masked and gloved missionary companionships from the Orlando mission were reporting for duty at the storehouse.
Several days each week, the missionary volunteers spend a few morning hours collecting and boxing items included on bishops’ food and home orders before delivering the items to recipients waiting curbside in their cars. The missionaries also help sanitize and maintain the facility, keeping things in compliance with COVID-19 regulations.
Each shift begins with a prayer and a daily lesson on welfare principles. The missionaries are also encouraged to share personal experiences that have lifted them during their week.
The missionaries “are all young and healthy,” said Elder Aron. “Our food orders have doubled and tripled during the pandemic, and there is no way [older volunteers] could have kept up with this pace.
“It has been a blessing in disguise.”
Elder Ian McNaughton from Hallowell, Maine, said he feels the Spirit whenever he enters the storehouse and gets to work.
“Whether it be packing oranges and celery, or distributing provision-filled bins with a hand truck, I always feel optimistic and excited to do the work that’s needed to be done,” he said.
His companion, Elder John Robison of Centerville, Utah, added that blessings await all who serve at the bishops’ storehouse.
“We are able to forget ourselves and worry about others,” he said. “We are able to see the happiness and joy that comes to families that come to the storehouse.”
President Ashcraft added that volunteering at the Orlando Bishops’ Storehouse offers the missionaries sacred opportunities to be on the frontline of pandemic-era service.
“The missionaries have been able to see a side of the Church that most had not seen before — the humanitarian side. That has touched their hearts and deepened their testimonies. They’ve also had the opportunity to interact with a lot of people who maybe are less active or struggling in other ways. That’s taught them to be non-judgmental.”
Serving in the bishops’ storehouse also helps missionaries build relationships with the people they are called to serve — even while learning lifelong lessons of charity, welfare principles and “pure religion” (James 1:27).
Many of the Orlando missionaries grew up in areas where the Church is prolific, yet few had fully understood the purposes of bishops’ storehouses or other Church welfare facilities and projects.
“It has been a wonderful experience for us to teach the missionaries about how the Lord’s welfare program works and why it works,” said Elder Aron. “And it helps the missionaries understand more about self-reliance.”
The Arons, President Ashcroft and the Orlando missionaries can trace the Lord’s hand during a challenging period no one ever wishes to repeat. Blessings soothe painful days.
Simply watching food recipients light up when they are greeted curbside by a team of strong, smiling missionaries, said Sister Aron, marks a daily miracle. “Their service here has opened so many doors.”
The missionaries will typically spend five or 10 minutes conversing, from a safe distance, with recipients after delivering their food boxes.
“One of our main responsibilities is to try to spiritually uplift people,” said Elder Aron. “Sometimes the people we are serving here each day mostly just need a friend to talk to.”
Sister Payton Nelson of Herriman, Utah, said she’s learned at the storehouse that even a “small conversation” with someone dealing with challenges can brighten their day.
“Through our service, we are also seeing the fruits in finding and teaching,” she said. “With the time we spend serving the Lord’s children, we have earned the Lord’s trust to put the people who need the message of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ on to our paths.”
During the challenges of the pandemic, contact opportunities can sometimes be limited. “But the storehouse has given us the opportunity to help those in need directly,” said Sister Renae Haas of Dallas, Texas. “Serving in the storehouse has really strengthened my testimony of the Church.”
The “givers” of service are being edified and elevated.
“For the missionaries, serving has been therapeutic,” said President Ashcroft. “It has opened up a lot of hearts to the message of the gospel.”