Apr. 22—ALEXANDRIA — As program manager of United Way of Madison County, Julie Barton was all too familiar with some of the challenges faced by individuals and families when it came to personal hygiene.
A member of the Alexandria-Monroe Chamber of Commerce board and its Caring Committee, she had an idea for a project that had been successful in a larger community where she used to work, and she knew just the man to ask.
Tom Quinn, owner of Quinn's Corner, a restaurant/pub that opened last June, also happened to be the owner of a decommissioned school bus that was perfect for a Fill the Bus toiletries drive. He had known Barton since they grew up in the same neighborhood, so it wasn't a hard sell, he admitted.
"If it's helping somebody, that's perfectly fine with me," he said.
Through June 1, the bus will be placed at businesses and events throughout Alexandria where toilet paper, tooth paste and brushes, soaps and lotions, and feminine hygiene projects will be collected for distribution through Pete's Pantry. The bus is emptied periodically with the items collected stored at the Broadway Church of God until the final distribution.
Many of the items are being collected through the Elks and the Eagles, which are conducting toiletry drives.
Quinn had bought the bus from another driver to use on his route for Alexandria Community Schools. But as it neared 20 years of age and 98,000 miles, school officials no longer wanted to use it as a matter of safety for the students.
"It's spent its whole life in Alexandria," he said. "It wasn't even broke in."
When he tried to sell it, however, Quinn was offered only $500. But it still was in good shape, so he kept it and turned it into a party bus.
"My family and friends went to concerts and things like that," he said.
Though people have become familiar with the idea of food security and even the need for clothing, few think about hygiene, Barton said. Fill the Bus is intended to raise awareness of the need for toiletries as well as collect them, she said.
"Our community is very, very generous as far as dropping off food, dropping off checks. But we think they could be a little more aware of the toiletry situation," she said. "We're looking at people needing shampoo, soap, lotions, deodorants. Those things can be quite costly, and they are never covered by food stamps."
Another goal is sustainability, Barton said. On rare occasions, people do donate hygiene products, but their availability for those who need them is sporadic.
"Our expectations are realistic. Are we going to fill a bus? I don't know. But can we try," she said.
Fill the Bus is the next step in an effort by the community and its leaders to combat poverty, Barton said. That includes expanding and rebranding Pete's Pantry and starting the community garden across from City Hall.
"We don't want it to be one or the other. People only have so much to give, so we definitely want people to keep giving to Pete's Pantry and if you can, give toiletries," she said.
Ashley Olibas, director of the chamber, like Barton and other members of the board, volunteers at Pete's Pantry and thought expanding to include toiletries was an excellent idea.
"We really want to have a cross-county collaborative and partner with different food banks," she said.
Olibas said she would like to see the bus be at least an annual event if not an ongoing drive.
"Depending on how it goes this year, we might donate what we have when we have it," she said.
Follow Rebecca R. Bibbs on Twitter at @RebeccaB_THB, or call 765-640-4883.