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Madison couple shares hardships, hunger, and heart

Pair count their blessings even while jobless and forced to rely on food pantries

MADISON, Wis. - 23140942

For the past couple of years, Gretchen Talbott has learned how to be creative in her cooking.

She and her husband, Victor, are constantly trying new things, experimenting with flavors and ingredients in the kitchen.

Being somewhat adventurous is almost a necessity when your food supply is out of your immediate control: Nearly all of the Talbotts' sustenance comes from a food pantry.

"Our life now doesn't look anything like how I thought it was going to be," Gretchen said.

The Talbotts have dealt with Victor's epilepsy since their relationship began 29 years ago. His condition got progressively worse, and eventually became so unpredictable that Victor could no longer work. That left the couple to rely on Gretchen's part-time, minimum-wage paycheck.

After going on medical leave, Gretchen's health then forced her off of the workforce early this year. It left them with no choice but to turn to someone for help.

"When you find yourself in a sudden position of need, it's embarrassing," Gretchen said, "and it's not an easy thing to ask for help."

"The hardest was knowing that, you know what? I don't have to be the only one responsible for my household, my health, my family," Victor said, "I can lean on somebody else."

The Talbotts found the Goodman Community Center, and they say that from the very start, they felt welcome and respected there. They said any notion they had of what hunger looked like was immediately dispelled.

"It is very hard to ask for help because the stigma of, 'oh, you go to a food pantry?' It's like, it's unfortunate," Gretchen explained. "And we used to be people like that. We absolutely were. We didn't have any understanding. We had a preconceived notion of who, what type of people went to food pantries, and that is not the case."

"I'm sure everyone wants to be in that same position of knowing that they can reach out and someone's got a hand to help them when they do," Victor added.

Now, the couple goes to the pantry weekly. And they're not alone.

Thousands of people are relying on the same organization for their Thanksgiving dinners.

Volunteers worked through the blistering cold over the weekend to distribute bags with all of the makings of a turkey day meal. Goodman Community Center's food pantry coordinator Jon Lica said 2,500 people signed up to get a Thanksgiving basket, and there are hundreds more on the waiting list.

"It's hard to imagine that 2,500 families in Dane County wouldn't have Thanksgiving plans if it wasn't for this. So it's really great to see the smiles on their faces and the appreciation for that we've accomplished here," Lica said.

Lica said he sees people of all walks of life coming to use the food pantry and take advantage of programs like the Thanksgiving baskets. He said the need is growing, not only in the number of people in need, but also in the amount of food they rely on the pantry for.

"I wouldn't trade that. It was worth it. It was worth it," said Gretchen of the hardships that she and her husband say have brought their family closer together.

Victor recently underwent brain surgery for his epilepsy, the first surgery in the course of his treatment. Gretchen said the procedure went well, and Victor is home from the hospital doing well.

It's just another obstacle for the Talbotts to overcome, and Gretchen still maintains that it all only made them stronger.

"It changed us, and it changed us for the better," Gretchen said. "It really did."

The Goodman Community Center is handing out Thanksgiving baskets until Tuesday, Nov. 26, and is still asking for donations to serve all of the need. Lica said they are especially in need of turkeys.

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