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A man in his 40s was standing in the basement of an Essex house, his thin body in constant, involuntary motion because of a nervous system affliction, St. Vitus' dance.

He took $26 worth of groceries from Mable Runge, thanked her and started to leave the Eastern Interfaith Outreach food pantry.

"Here, I'll throw in a Mother's Day cake," she said, reaching into a refrigerator and handing over the cake, temptingly bright with red and yellow icing.

Mrs. Runge, at 82, is finding purpose in her life as volunteer director of the Outreach pantry, which is supported by 24 Essex-area churches and several community organizations. Last year, Outreach distributed $59,000 in food and money to more than 4,000 people.

And in a county with about 30 emergency food pantries, she helps make Outreach one of a kind.

"Interfaith is different from many of the others, because it is open three days a week where most are open two days or less, and it helps out with funds in certain desperate situations," said Jack McNamara, of the Baltimore County Department of Social Services' Essex office. "Then there is Mable, who is so energetic and determined to be useful at her age."

Mrs. Runge was raised in Hamilton and is a graduate of Eastern High School. She retired as a buyer for the old Hutzler's department stores in 1972 and worked for 30 years as a county Health Department volunteer counseling pregnant women.

She said she had been depressed since the deaths of her husband and a foster daughter. As an antidote, she took on the Outreach position when the pantry opened eight years ago. She also believes she is living on borrowed time.

"I was diagnosed with cancer in 1947 and given five months to live," she said. "The Lord spared me. There must have been a purpose."

At the pantry, at 531 Eastern Blvd., Mrs. Runge picked up a phone and took a call from a woman who said her husband was in intensive care and dying. The woman needed food for her two children.

"The best we can do right now is give her a $5 gift certificate," Mrs. Runge said, "and then she'll have to go through Social Services to be checked out for more help."

"We don't encourage walk-ins," she added, glancing at a can of pepper spray at her elbow.

"Two men came in one day and demanded money. I told them we don't keep money, and one pulled out a knife.

"I said I was going to call 911, and he said, 'You wouldn't.' I did, and they ran, the cowards."

Such behavior isn't unusual for Mrs. Runge.

"I gave a man in his 20s a bag of food one day," she recalled. "He looked in the bag and said, 'I don't want this garbage,' and started throwing the cans at me. Boy, that made me mad. I went around the counter, took him by the shoulders and spun him toward the door. He whacked me with his hand, and I whacked him back. Knocked his hat off. Then I called 911.

"Would you believe he hung around and waited for the police and wanted them to arrest me for assault. What nerve. They ordered him to stay out of here forever."

Mrs. Runge is member of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, a national network of elderly volunteers sponsored in the county by the Department of Aging.

She spends uncounted hours working at the food pantry, which is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. "Recordkeeping and chores take a lot of time, but I get a lot of help from church volunteers," she said.

One of them is retiree William Mercer, 69. He works at the pantry two days a week, filling shelves with donated food and looking out for a 33-year-old homeless man who lives in nearby woods -- even doing the man's laundry once a week.

Supporting organizations and people contribute about $1,000 a month in cash to the food pantry. Clarence Cox, who owns business and residential properties in Essex, gives the pantry the basement rent free. Area grocery stores donate dented cans, and sell Outreach other nonperishable items at cost.

"These are not wealthy people in Outreach," Mrs. Runge said. "We have one couple that gives $50 a month, a God's blessing."

"We never quite run out of food. We come close, but the Boy Scouts alone can carry us for a month with their annual food drive."

Meanwhile, the calls kept coming. A woman phoned and said she owed $136.95 on her electric bill, and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. was threatening a cutoff. Mrs. Runge referred her to the Salvation Army.

"We'll pay the last $30 of an electric bill, but they have to go through Social Services, and we have to see a copy of the turnoff or eviction notice and the receipts," Mrs. Runge said. "We'll also pay the last $30 of a rent bill once a year. Usually, they just need that much to get them over the hump, and we don't see them again."

A blond woman in her late teens, a baby in her arms, came down the basement steps. They had a Social Services referral, and Mrs. Runge provided a bag filled with $40 worth of canned goods, macaroni, pancake mix and rice. The women thanked her and left.

"Sometimes we'll give people a bag of food, and they'll go outside and sit on the curb, pick out what they want, and leave the rest sitting there," Mrs. Runge said.

Then there was the man whose mother in West Virginia has died three times.

"He caught us the first time, and I gave him a voucher for gasoline, but that was it," Mrs. Runge said, laughing. "We're not exactly stupid."

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