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A helping hand

Vickie Fenimore's journey to ACCESS started about four years ago with pain in her neck.

The excruciating discomfort had lasted several days. She went to get checked out and got her diagnosis. The neck pain went beyond just run-of-the-mill stiffness; it was broken. 

The fracture resulted from a metabolic disorder that made her bones weak. Bones in her neck had collapsed and cut three-quarters of the way into her spinal cord. 

"I found this all out after the fact. I didn't even know I had a broken neck," Fenimore says.

The Medford mother of three was flown to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for surgery. Surgeons inserted plates and screws to the affected area to bolster it. During surgery, she suffered a stroke, but survived. Post-op, doctors said she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life, but she proved that diagnosis wrong. She's still walking today, unassisted, though she says she has come-and-go issues with the right side of her body.

"I have good days and bad days," she says. 

Doctors called her a "miracle" patient. But despite her progress, she couldn't resume her job at Harry & David. Her family, down to one income — her husband does property maintenance at various sites around the Rogue Valley — needed some help. About four months after the surgery, they turned to ACCESS to help supplement their food budget. It's an organization she remains grateful for years later. 

A nonprofit that served 41,405 families during the 2014-15 fiscal year, ACCESS turns to the community during the holidays for additional help. 

The Jackson County non-profit's largest food drive of the year — the Food For Hope campaign — kicks off Monday. About 45,000 grocery bags are stuffed into morning newspapers, with the request that readers stuff them with food and take them to one of several drop sites around the county, including fire stations, Umpqua bank branches, Sherm's Thunderbird, Food 4 Less and several churches. 

"We have a lot of food drives this time of year, but this one's specifically focused to draw attention to the need this time of year," says Alec Schwimmer, ACCESS nutrition programs coordinator.

The campaign hopes to raise 30,000 pounds of food and $40,000 in cash contributions by the end of December. Every dollar provides about four meals, Schwimmer says. Financial contributions can be made at www.accesshelps.org

Schwimmer says Fenimore's story is starting to become a familiar one, an anecdote showing the shift in the type of clientele ACCESS helps.

"These are working families who didn't need our services," he says. "In (Fenimore's) case, because of injury, but a lot of families who are working, and they're still working, but aren't making enough to sustain them. They need that little extra help, that one week out of the month that they still can't get by." 

"The makeup of our clients has changed," Schwimmer adds. "Overall, we've just seen a lot of clients who didn't need our help in the past."

That includes a set of families and individuals living right on the edge of being able to get by. Anyone utilizing ACCESS must make below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That's $44,862.50 for a family of four, for example. 

"They fall within that category of making too much to qualify for any governmental assistance, but are under the limit in order to qualify for the services that we can offer," Schwimmer says. "And that's why this program exists." 

Four years after surgery, Fenimore continues to make the trip to the ACCESS pantry.

Just over a week before Thanksgiving, she pushes her cart through the aisles of food in the pantry at Medford Community Services, also the location of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Medford. Fenimore chooses canned goods, bread, milk, frozen chicken, hot cereal and butter. Occasionally, she finds a specialty item such as quinoa. 

It's one of the largest emergency food pantries ACCESS has, providing emergency food boxes to 10,760 people — 2,767 households —during the 2014-15 fiscal year. A total 115,428 people, or 41,405 families, received assistance from one of the 24 sites. 

Fenimore was using a walker when she first started going. That progressed to a cane, and now she moves unassisted. It took her about a year to learn how to walk again. 

"They've seen me progress out there, all the workers," Fenimore says, smiling. 

The food her family receives isn't the main source for groceries, but it helps supplement what they are able to get on their own. It's also made a difference, health-wise, for Fenimore. 

"We don't really qualify for any other kind of assistance. We're always like right above the amounts," Fenimore says. "Coming here and getting fresh fruits and veggies and getting loaves of bread and canned goods, it makes a difference in our monthly grocery shopping." 

Fenimore, who has referred other people to the pantry when they're going through a hard time, said there should be no stigma attached to asking for help. 

"You don't have to be ashamed. If you're having a hard month or if you're struggling with something," Fenimore says. "Maybe something came up medically, maybe something came up with your car."

"I understand what they're going through." 

—Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Vickie Fenimore of Medford stocks up on groceries at ACCESS in Medford on Tuesday. Fenimore and her family use ACCESS to help supplement their monthly food bill. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch