Martha Henk was born and raised in the Congo where her parents were both teachers. In the early 80s, she moved to Alabama. She has remained in Alabama ever since, with the exception of the four years spent at a private school called Bethel College in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After graduating, Henk worked for an organization called Presbyterian Community Ministry, which is a housing ministry that does home renovations for low-income families. When the executive director position at The East Alabama Food Bank opened, Henk was encouraged to apply. Upon first glance of the application, she did not think she fit what they wanted. She did not have an accounting, financial or food handling background. Although this was true, Henk had something else the Food Bank wanted – her heart.
“You can learn how to handle the food, how to handle donor relations and how to handle agencies… all of that you can learn, but the thing you can’t learn and you have to bring to the job is a heart for those in need,” Henk said.
From her previous job, Henk learned a great deal about the local social service network and about what the needs were among the community. For this reason, the executive director position seemed like a natural progression to Henk, so she was excited about the new position and the new field she was in.
Henk has now been working at the Food Bank for 22 years and loves her job more and more every day. “I believe very strongly that the work I do is missionary work just like my folks did in the Congo,” Henk said. “It’s just not done over seas.”
The Food Bank is a part of a national organization called Feeding America, which is based in Chicago, Illinois. In Alabama, there are eight food banks. Each food bank has a specific service area that they cover. The Food Bank of East Alabama covers seven counties and works to gather together the best supply of donated food and make it available to churches and nonprofit organizations that have some sort of outreach program to the community in need. All agencies that the Food Banks works with are required to track how they have determined eligibility and who they serve.
Henk strongly encourages everyone to donate or volunteer for any organization, even if it is just in a small way. Not only does she believe this because she is passionate about giving, but she also believes it is the solution to overcoming the terror in the world.
Lately, Henk has found it difficult and almost frightening to watch the news or read the newspaper due to recent heart wrenching events all-around the world. “It’s very overwhelming, but I think that the way to handle it is to find one very simple and concrete way to do something that makes a difference,” Henk said. “I really believe this is the way we can overcome this.”
Many personal experiences have motivated and inspired Henk to continue her work. In 1997, the Food Bank started Brown Bag Program which supplied supplementary groceries each month to nearly 400 seniors who live below the poverty line.
This program idea actually came about when Henk came across an elderly woman in Opelika that was eating cat food and rice for every meal. After speaking with her and telling her the importance of a balanced diet, the woman explained to Henk that eating the cat food was her source of meat and the rice was her vegetable. “I mean come on! We can do better than that in this country. Seriously, we can do better,” Henk said.
All the programs at The East Alabama Food Bank started because of a problem or issue that needed to be addressed. Henk strives in her daily life to find solutions to problems and to keep new problems from forming.
In order to have a strong community, basic human needs need to be met. For this reason, Henk strongly believes in a powerful quote by Martin Luther King Jr: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”