Medical bills and other expenses strained Race Rudd Sr.'s finances, so replacing his broken-down car was beyond his means.
In an imperfect arrangement, he relied on a friend to ferry him between his home in Odenton and his job as cook at the Hope House, a substance abuse treatment facility in Crownsville. One day, he told the head of the Anne Arundel County Food & Resource Bank, a Hope House neighbor where he picked up food for the treatment center, that he sure could use wheels.
Bruce Michalec, the food bank's executive director, said, "'I'm not in the car business, but I'll look out for one for you,'" Rudd recalled.
That Christmas Eve, Michalec stood on the food bank's loading dock and pointed out a maroon 1992 Buick LeSabre in the lot to Rudd.
"He said, 'See that? That's your Christmas present,'" Rudd said. "It was truly a godsend."
Cooking lunch twice a week as a volunteer at the food bank, he said, doesn't repay Michalec's help.
"If I need food, I can get it from him," said Rudd, 58, who with emphysema and heart ailments relies on disability payments for his income. "How many doctor's appointments would I have not made if not for him?"
For 27 years, Michalec has been the guiding force of the Anne Arundel County Food & Resource Bank. At 74, he still works a six-day week.
"He is a true success story. [The food bank] started from nothing, and he has worked like a trooper to grow and expand the thing," said Sylvia Jennings, the food bank's founding board president and currently a director. This month, at the board's annual meeting, Michalec was honored for his 27 years of service to the food bank — and his birthday.
Michalec, whose previous work experience includes a stint in the Army Medical Corps in the 1960s as well as work in restaurant operations and shoe stores, launched the food bank in 1986 in a church building as a way to distribute federal surplus food to the needy.
Over the years under his guidance, it has mushroomed into an operation that annually gives away more than $1.25 million in food and nearly $150,000 in medical supplies and furniture.
Its clients include soup kitchens, shelters, families whose cupboards are bare, homeless individuals getting back on their feet, recovering addicts and, increasingly, people who have fallen from the middle class during the rough economy.
Michalec credits the generosity of the others for helping to make it run: Schoolchildren, community groups, businesses and individuals come to the center to donate items and, sometimes, money. The food and resources bank is a nonprofit that gets about $100,000 a year from the county, helping to cover Michalec's salary and that of a few staffers.
"It's amazing how good people are to me," Michalec said, walking through the food bank on the grounds of the state's now-closed Crownsville Hospital Center.
The building used to be the complex's kitchen. Now the 30,000-square-foot facility has items such as soup, soap, breakfast cereals and pizza sauce — even motorized scooters available for disabled clients. A hotel, Michalec said, wants to donate 1,500 pieces of furniture, if only he had somewhere to store them.
Those in need are thankful for Michalec's effort, but current and former prison inmates are among his biggest fans.
"He helped me get my life straight," said Lawrence Totty, 34, of Brooklyn Park. For seven months, the food bank was Totty's work-release position from the county jail.
He said when he finished his sentence for theft, Michalec gave him a paying job, toiletries, a bed and more.
"On Oct. 2, I'll celebrate two years clean, something I haven't been able to do since I was 13," said Totty, recovering from an addiction to painkillers.
"I couldn't have done it without him," he said of Michalec. "This place has given me a purpose."
During the 2011-2012 fiscal year, inmates on work release provided $161,220 worth of labor at the food bank. Inmates earn a day off their jail term for every day they work at the pantry. At any given time, Michalec has a staff of 11 inmates and one or two people performing community service. Service hours accounted for about $6,300 worth of free labor last year.
"I never had a problem with them," Michalec said of the inmate staff. He said the workers are good to him, providing the heavy lifting. "They've made the program a success."
And they respond to the respect and trust he conveys.
"He trusts me," Totty said. "I'm a supervisor, I supervise inmates, everything that comes in and out of the building."
"We are helping them," Michalec said, "and that trains them in work ethics and how to become better citizens with a better work attitude. And it's giving them work experience."
Michalec has found the program uncomfortably in the spotlight in recent weeks, as former Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold has been performing 400 hours of court-ordered community service in the food bank office, manning the phones. Convicted in January of misconduct in office, Leopold served a combined two months of jail and home detention. He is on probation.
"I like it," Leopold said between calls on a recent weekday. The community service, Leopold said, gives him an inside view of the work of the food bank, which he visited while in office.
A few callers have recognized his voice on the phone, asking, "Mr. Leopold, is that you?" he said. On a serious note, he said he is more impressed than ever with Michalec's operation.
For Michalec, giving an inmate a job reference — or a bed for a newly rented room — is a reward that hasn't gotten old over 27 years. That sense of reward seems to have rubbed off on others, too.
Work-release inmate David Thompson, 35, said once he's out of jail, he'll make sure he has something better to do with his spare time than the drugs that brought him trouble.
"I'll be coming back to help him out," he said. "I'll volunteer."