Feed the Need

Knightdale nonprofit feeds hundreds each week, donates books

Billy Ray Neal, center, looks on as volunteers surrounding him distribute food to the needy at Neal's nonprofit, Community Helpers Service Center, in Knightdale on April 3.
Billy Ray Neal, center, looks on as volunteers surrounding him distribute food to the needy at Neal's nonprofit, Community Helpers Service Center, in Knightdale on April 3. PAUL A. SPECHT - aspecht@newsobserver.com

Despite suffering from a spinal cord injury that’s prompted multiple brain surgeries and sometimes causes debilitating vertigo, Billy Ray Neal is at Knightdale’s food pantry five days a week.

After all, someone has to be in charge of feeding the needy.

Neal, 63, isn’t a client – he’s the president of the Community Helpers Service Center, a nonprofit which Neal says distributes food to more than 100 families each week from its headquarters on First Avenue.

“We get folks from Wake, eastern Wake, Johnston and Franklin County,” Neal said.

Last year, Neal and volunteers at Community Helpers gave away more than 904,000 pounds of food they received from the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

On a recent Wednesday morning at Community Helpers, the line of people doglegged around two corners of the old, brick single-story building. Cars were parked in the grass for half-a-mile up the street. “I think the economy has been sending even more people our way,” Neal said, meandering through the crowd.

Albis Gomez is one of Neal’s newer clients. Gomez, 58, says he began coming to Community Helpers Knightdale several months ago when his budget got tight.

“I’m handicapped, so (Community Helpers) is basically the only place I get food,” Gomez said, noting that he was shopping for his wife and 17-year-old son.

Others, like Magdu Flores, 39, have relied on Community Helpers for years. But, after having triplets eight months ago, Flores suddenly needs more resources. “It’s a big help for my house,” said Flores, who has nine children.

Neal knows what it’s like to provide for a large household on a limited budget. Neal and his wife, Pearlie, raised eight children – four of whom he adopted – and nearly 20 foster children.

Children “are my main motivation,” Neal said.

In addition to providing food and clothing for the needy, Neal last year began giving away children’s books. Community Helpers doesn’t have the resources to buy books. So, in his spare time, Neal searches for books that can be donated. Neal then gives away children’s books about four times a year, under one condition: that children write a short report for him about the book.

“Getting those reports back, seeing that they’re learning and that they want to read, that’s what makes me feel good at night,” Neal says.

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