Retired priest determined to help feed the hungry
August 17, 2022
By Stephanie Sullivan, Food Bank for the Heartland
This article first appeared on the Food Bank for the Heartland website, part of a series called “40 Faces of 40 Years” featuring volunteers, donors and supporters who have helped the Food Bank over the past 40 years. Father Wayne Pavela is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Omaha.
Father Wayne Pavela has been going above and beyond to serve others since 1982. At that time, he had a 3-acre garden to help feed the poor. After being reassigned to Scotus Central Catholic High School as a full-time teacher and campus minister in 1990, he made the move to Columbus, Nebraska, and purchased a 10-acre plot of land. That garden has expanded to provide thousands of neighbors with fresh fruit and vegetables for more than three decades.
“When we first started the garden, we originally sought to help people in Platte County and around the area. But as we expanded, we decided to also take food to Omaha and that’s when I connected with the Food Bank and started donating to them.”
Food Bank for the Heartland isn’t the only recipient of Father Wayne’s goodwill. Over the years, he’s established relationships with 40 agencies across Nebraska to serve people throughout the state. “Every year, we donate sweet corn to food pantries, rescue missions, thrift stores like St. Vincent De Paul, Catholic Social Services, senior centers, and the Winnebago reservation.”
What makes the process even sweeter is that Father Wayne receives help from local high schools to involve youth in the process – showing them the impact they can make at a local level. He says it’s a team effort getting the corn picked and ready for distribution each year.
“I work with a farmer from Humphrey who helps me plant 4 ½ acres of sweet corn in May. We wait to see when it’s going to be done and then we pick it all in one day.” That’s when he gets assistance from about 60 volunteers – mostly students – to pick the corn. From there, the team works together to get the job done quickly and efficiently.
The corn is then distributed to agencies in various counties including Platte, Antelope, Madison, Pierce, Butler, Colfax, Polk, Nance, Thurston, and Lancaster. That doesn’t include the Food Bank’s distribution of the corn – which covers 93 counties in Nebraska and 16 in western Iowa.
While the amount of corn donated varies each year, Father Wayne knows it will make a significant impact. “During COVID, the Food Bank called to tell me I donated 24,300 lbs. of corn, which is great. Then they told me that translated into 20,250 meals. When I heard that, it blew me away! I may not know what 24,000 lbs. of corn can do, but now I know 20,000 people have eaten and that makes all the difference. That’s one meal for every person in Columbus for one day.”
Father Wayne assumes that over the last 40 years, he’s donated more than 1.5 million pounds of fresh food to those in need. When asked why he does it, his response was simple.
“I don’t do it for a pat on the back. It’s not done for any reason other than that’s what the Scripture tells us to do – to help those in need. This is part of my life as a priest. I do it because I’m called to do it.”
The question now remains, what’s next for this retired priest? He laughs as he shares. “I’m ready to expand, but I have people telling me I’m nuts. They ask why I would want to do anymore than what I’m already doing.”
But Father Wayne is determined to keep serving as long as he can. “I want to try and get different vegetables in the mix. Besides the corn, we harvest cabbages and tomatoes. I’d like to plant different crops within other areas of the farm and distribute them to even more people.”
Father Wayne says this garden has been a blessing to him as much as it has to neighbors in need. “As a priest I can’t help financially from my own pocket, but the garden provides me with an easy opportunity to give back.” He’s hopeful his act of kindness will plant the seeds of inspiration in others, “I hesitated to share my story because I don’t like to be in the forefront, but if it can help inspire one person, I consider that a success.”