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It’s Friday morning at the Marys River Gleaners distribution site in Pioneer Park, and Cookie Johnson is holding court.

Today is a distribution day, when the group’s low-income members can come in to pick up their weekly share of canned goods, packaged foods, fresh vegetables, bread and maybe even a bit of frozen meat. Volunteers help fill brown paper bags for shut-ins or load them into private vehicles for delivery.

Wearing royal purple and clutching a fresh cup of coffee, Johnson makes the rounds of her small but bustling kingdom, bestowing hugs, greeting volunteers by name and issuing commands in the guise of gentle requests to keep the work flowing smoothly.

“Hi! How you doin’? Could you go over there and help them out? Thank you, baby.”

She gets lots of happy smiles, friendly greetings and cooperation in return. She keeps a box of candy in the office to pass out to the kids, and on the walls she keeps photos of gleaners who have recently passed on.

But don’t be fooled. There’s an iron fist inside the velvet glove. When discipline is called for, Cookie Johnson knows how to dish it out.

“If you mess with me, I’m gonna read you from the good book and show you some pictures,” she warns. “I don’t have a filter, so I tell people what I think. That’s the way I’ve always been.”

Johnson got involved with the Marys River Gleaners in 2004 as a member-volunteer. Like every other able-bodied member in the group, she was expected to pitch in on at least three gleans a year, gathering leftover produce from farmers’ fields after the harvest was finished, plus volunteer eight hours a month on tasks such as picking up surplus food from local restaurants or goods that had passed their “best by” dates from supermarkets.

Members are allowed to keep half of what they gather this way for their own families while handing the other half over to the group for distribution to the old, the frail or the incapacitated. Here in the mid-valley, there are 14 gleaners groups that operate under the umbrella of Linn Benton Food Share.

“She needed extra help with food and stuff, but she also didn’t believe in just taking a handout,” said Susan James, who coordinates the gleaning program for Linn Benton Food Share.

“She kind of incorporates what gleaning’s all about. It’s helping other people and yourself.”

Johnson was elected coordinator of the Marys River Gleaners by her fellow members in 2007, and since then it’s become one of the largest gleaning groups in the area with 936 members — up from 400 when she started.

Last month, she became the first member-volunteer from any gleaners group to win a Hunger Buster Volunteer of the Year Award from the Oregon Food Bank.

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Her ability to rally the troops to feed ever-larger numbers of needy people was one reason Linn Benton Food Share nominated her for the statewide honor, James said, along with her no-nonsense attitude and her belief in the essential human dignity to which everyone should be entitled, no matter how poor they might be.

Another reason was her unflagging willingness to lift up people less fortunate than herself, whether it’s inviting a homeless couple to her trailer for Thanksgiving dinner or helping a street kid land a job.

“She takes a big interest in homeless teenagers and people who have fallen down in their lives,” James said. “She’s just kind of that way. She collects people.”

Part of Johnson’s appeal lies in the fact that she’s known poverty her entire life. When she offers her assistance, it’s less an act of charity than a gentle push in the right direction — followed by a swift kick in the backside if she thinks one of her “projects” is slacking off or trying to game the system.

“I tell them this: No one owes you anything,” she said. “You take care of yourself.”

Here’s something else she’s been known to tell people: “Don’t you feel ashamed standing on the corner begging when you could wash your (behind) and go to McDonald’s and get a job?”

Even Johnson is surprised sometimes when people keep coming back to her after she’s dished out one of her trademark tongue-lashings.

“I don’t know why people gravitate toward me,” she confessed. “Maybe it’s because I love them.”

Johnson’s personal brand of tough love doesn’t always work, of course. For every person she’s managed to get off the streets, there are others who are still out there, still hungry, still in need of a helping hand or yet another second chance.

And that’s OK, too. In Johnson’s world, there always seems to be more than enough of everything to go around, whether it’s food, straight talk or compassion.

“I was raised where everybody’s the same. Ain’t no difference between you and that person but the color of your skin,” Johnson said.

“You can be poor as a churchmouse, but if you grow up with lots of love and someone to talk to and some understanding, you can make it.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald