Stafford man has a heart for feeding others

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Dwayne Hoskins’ heart may only function at one-third its capacity, but he pours every bit of it into his volunteer work at a local food pantry.

Hoskins runs the food ministry at Hollywood Church of the Brethren, off Ferry Road in Stafford County. He got involved with the mission in 2014, more than a year after he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and an enlarged heart.

Hoskins was 48 at the time and had spent more than 30 years working on his hands and knees installing floors. When he learned he had the same illness that killed his father and impaired his brother, the Stafford resident didn’t take it well.

Confined to his home and unable to do much of anything, Hoskins started eating too much and putting on the pounds, which made his heart work that much harder.

“That’s my biggest weakness, sitting around feeling sorry for myself,” he said.

That and Oreo cookies. Hoskins would grab a couple every time he walked by the kitchen before promptly plopping on the couch. Things got so bad that his mother, Wilma Comuntzis, told him he had to change his ways.

“Life gave you lemons, now it’s time to make lemonade,” she said.

Comuntzis encouraged him to help out at the church’s food pantry, which is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. Hoskins took her advice, eventually took over operations and now leads the effort in which 40 to 50 families get 65 to 70 pounds of food per week, including canned goods, dairy and meat.

He’s so generous that Pastor Rick Ritchie sometimes has to rein him in a little.

“He’s got such a big heart, we’ve had to tell him, ‘Be careful, you’d give away the church if we’d let you,’ ” Ritchie said. “He just doesn’t do a little bit, he’s very devoted overall to the entire ministry. He’ll do anything to help.”

While setting out to help others, Hoskins also may have saved himself. When he was initially diagnosed, his heart was functioning at only 12 percent of its full strength.

As he got busy, picking up food donations and arranging cans of green beans and boxes of macaroni on pantry shelves, he didn’t have time to sit around eating Oreos. His weight dropped from more than 300 pounds to about 250 pounds, and his heart function improved.

“I felt like I had a purpose again,” he said. “God had something else planned for me. He could have taken me that day, on the 28th of December (in 2012), but he had different plans for me. This has given me such a blessing, and it’s all through the grace of God. To me, that’s why my heart has gotten better and not worse.”

Now 56, Hoskins’ heart has increased its function just as the ministry has expanded to include commercial-size refrigerators and freezers and the distribution of clothes as well as food. The church’s pantry is one of the few that has remained open during the pandemic, except for two weeks in August after Hoskins, his wife, Becky, and another pantry volunteer came down with COVID-19. They were exposed to the virus when they helped another group get a house ready for a family, and Hoskins said doctors kept a close eye on him, given his underlying health issues.

He never really got sick, but developed a bad cough that has lingered, he said.

Becky Hoskins also helps shop for pantry items, and she came up with “Loaves and Fishes” to sum up the ministry’s efforts. The hashtag is painted on one of the commercial fridges, and it refers to a Bible story about the way Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of 5,000 people after a little boy donated his lunch of five loaves and two fish to feed the massive crowd.

Ritchie has seen the same principle applied to the pantry.

“One thing we have found is we can’t outgive God,” the pastor said. “The more we give away, the more we take in, both financially and in the food department. People we don’t even know have started bringing stuff to the church and calling. It’s really been a great thing.”

Churches that had to suspend their food distributions because of the pandemic have offered food or money to keep Hollywood Church of the Brethren’s pantry in operation. In addition, Hoskins has partnered with Ellie’s Elves to give away clothes and household goods under the outside pavilion during the food distribution on Tuesdays.

“Dwayne puts his heart and soul into the pantry,” said Joni Kanazawa, founder and director of Ellie’s Elves. “ Dwayne says that while Jesus and the church feed us spiritually, he is trying to physically feed those in need. He has done a tremendous job growing this ministry and feeding so many in our community.”

Ellie’s Elves was created in memory of Ellie Blaine, an Orange County youngster who got sick on her second birthday and was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. She died in December 2013, a few days before her third birthday.

Richard Renninger, Ellie’s grandfather, has become Hoskins’ “right-hand man,” Hoskins said, and has volunteered with the pantry regularly since he retired. Renninger’s wife, Tina, also has become a pantry staple, and the two enjoy the work, he said.

About Hoskins, Renninger said that, “He’s very laid back, very easygoing. It’s hard to get him riled up or to lose his temper, even when people are quite obnoxious, and believe me, we see all kinds. He would do anything for anybody. That’s the kind of person he is.”

Hoskins said he’s merely the face of the pantry, that his volunteer team keeps things running. They all encourage him to take a break when he pushes himself too hard. Because the fluid builds up around his heart, he’s prone to dizziness or shortness of breath.

He’s experienced both when he’s been stocking shelves and has gotten up too quickly. “It’s like getting off a Tilt-a-Whirl,” Hoskins said.

He knows other volunteers would come to his aid but he still has trouble seeking assistance.

“I still want to try and do it and sometimes I overdo it and pay for it in the evening time, and I get home and my feet and legs are swollen from poor circulation,” he said, adding this particular issue is more from his head than his heart. “I’m a guy; I hate to ask for help.”