The first Monday of the month is a busy day for the 40 or so volunteers of the Pine-Strawberry Food Bank. It’s typically the day that the United Food Bank truck arrives and volunteers unload and sort the food to be distributed to families on the first Tuesday of the month, said Sharon Ballentine, food bank president.

The Fourth of July holiday and the Backbone Fire combined to create a potential problem for the organization that has been serving the Pine-Strawberry community since 1992, she said.

Because of the Fourth of July, the normal delivery from United Food Bank was not coming. Leaving the food bank in a scramble to collect or buy enough food to serve a potentially greater than normal population as folks have only been home a week after evacuating for the Backbone Fire. Many were out of work for a week and may have lost hundreds of dollars in food that went bad while they were evacuated, said Ballentine.

During the evacuation, Strawberry Inn owner, Amber Eilers, connected with Ballentine. She and her family had, prior to the Backbone evacuation, committed to volunteering on Monday, July 5. Then things got intense and Eilers stepped up that commitment.

Finding it hard to sit still and watch, Eilers was looking for a way to help her displaced community, even as her own employees and business took a big loss.

As the Backbone captured the attention of the state, being labeled the nation’s top priority fire, Eilers was hearing from many around her that folks wanted to help.

As people started to ask how they could help, Eilers and an employee, Carrie Perry, set up food donation boxes in various locations in the Valley.

“We even had one of our vendors just call us and ask if they could set up a donation box in Tempe,” Eilers said.

Eilers also set up a Venmo account where anyone could donate money to the Pine-Strawberry Food Bank, that brought in $2,500 on top of the food, much of it in $15 and $20 increments, said Eilers.

“We got to be a conduit for other people’s generosity,” Eilers said Monday as she her family and folks who work for her brought in six overflowing pickup truckloads of food to the food bank, making this Monday extra special.

“Today has never happened,” Ballentine said holding back tears as she watched dedicated volunteers unload and sort the food. To receive so much in donations was overwhelming to Ballentine, who has helped feed the community for 27 years.

Ballentine, and her late husband Don, started volunteering at the food bank in 1994, when the small group still met at the post office for distribution. She has been a key component of the organization and its growth for all these years.

Back in those days the couple also owned and operated the Windmill Inn, which is today called the Strawberry Inn and operated by Eilers and her husband Carson.

Ballentine and Eilers have a connection as they seem to be cut from the same Pine tree. Serving their mountain community is a priority.

Just one of the many examples of how much more backbone this community has.

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