Fuehrer leaves TOPSS to focus on economic injustice

After guiding the Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services (TOPSS) through the worst of the pandemic, Ann Fuehrer stepped down as executive director of the organization.

Photo provided by Ann Fuehrer

After guiding the Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services (TOPSS) through the worst of the pandemic, Ann Fuehrer stepped down as executive director of the organization.

By Michelle Miao

After seven years with Talawanda Oxford Pantry & Social Services (TOPSS) and two years as Executive Director, Ann Fuehrer stepped down from her position at the beginning of December.

A former professor of psychology, Fuehrer taught at Miami for 38 years and joined TOPSS to help community members in need and strengthen connections between local social service organizations.

“I want to first serve our customers successfully, but also to work collaboratively with our partners in the community to build a network of resources for our customers,” Fuehrer said. “People who experience food insecurity also need help with rent, with utilities, with medical costs, transportation, jobs, childcare… it’s an endless list.” 

Besides fulfilling the needs of clients, Fuehrer said she focused on promoting understanding and empathy for people who “often remain invisible, marginalized and certainly underserved.”

She said the pandemic presented new challenges during much of her time as director, but TOPSS was able to reach more people during this time period.

TOPSS began as a choice food pantry, but in large part due to the pandemic, has pivoted to not just opening the doors three times a week and waiting for people to come, but actually delivering food.

Under the direction of Ann Fuehrer, TOPSS was able to provide food for families in need during the pandemic through deliveries and curbside pickups when the food pantry on College Corner Pike had to be closed for in-person shopping Photo by Michelle Miao

“We began going to where people are, allowing people to quarantine and social distance,” Fuehrer said. “We were fortunate enough to get a CARES Act award from the city last December that allowed us to purchase a Ford Transit van, which we had refrigerated,” she added. By making the rounds twice a week, TOPSS served more families, including those that didn’t have transportation to access services before.

Diana Byrd, chair of the TOPSS Board, said she met Fuehrer four years ago, when Fuehrer was a board member. Byrd credited Fuehrer with getting TOPSS through the pandemic. “She was very clever in figuring out ways to shop. We did delivery three times a week and curbside shopping, where customers would come pick out food. Ann gave us more variety with that, as well. In the old days, we didn’t have as many food choices.”

Fuehrer said that the mobile pantry will continue and that TOPSS has been working with social workers within the Talawanda School District, as well. “There are lots of families we serve or could potentially serve who live in rural areas, so we’re trying to reach out to those areas through school social workers who best know which families are experiencing food insecurity.”

Within the community, Fuehrer helped extend the partnerships between TOPSS and organizations such as the Coalition for a Healthy Community, the Family Resource Center and Thread Up Oxford, a nonprofit that brings good quality clothing to residents. Fuehrer said TOPSS was also involved with the harm prevention initiative that provided Narcan to people who needed it.

The biggest challenge for Fuehrer was when TOPSS closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic, but still had to ensure customers could access and choose food they needed.

“We didn’t skip any service days. I was really proud of that,” said Fuehrer. “We just started calling people and asking if they wanted deliveries to their homes.”

During COVID-19, some volunteers were unable to continue because of health risks, but new members joined, also. “Some had been laid off or had their hours cut back, and they came and said, ‘I know there are people in need. I’ve got time, how can I help?’” Fuehrer said.

Diana Byrd (right), chair of the TOPSS board, with new executive director Sherry Martin, at the center. Photo provided by Diana Byrd

This spirit of compassion is what Fuehrer finds the most meaningful about her time with TOPSS. “The best moments come when there are very personal connections of support, empathy and caring among staff, volunteers and the community,” she said.

Fuehrer said she was moved when Class 23 from Talawanda High School was recently introduced to the new executive director, Sherry Martin. Class 23 is a class for students with cognitive and developmental disabilities, who are able to stay at the high school until they’re 23 years old. The students go to the pantry every Friday to help with cleaning, packaging  and sorting of food.

“I was orienting our new director, and I introduced her to the school faculty member and the students, who were getting started on their task,” Fuehrer said. “That’s really what makes my heart so full, to see the dedication and commitment of the volunteers we have. In this case, it’s young people who are facing their own challenges but still have so much energy and commitment when they work with us.”

Byrd said she’ll most fondly recall how Fuehrer interacted with community members. “She had so much compassion. Just watching her with the customer, I wanted to be the customer! That’s how much attention and engagement she showed towards others. She was the one with the clipboard who would go to the car for curbside shopping because that was her joy and her gratification.”

Fuehrer started volunteering at TOPSS in 2014, joining the board in 2017 and becoming executive director in 2019. She said she’s proud of where TOPSS is now, but would like to see even more partnership between TOPSS and other social services. “I have a vision of what TOPSS can be as a full blown center that works to bridge the economic divides in our community,” she said.

The new executive director of TOPSS, Sherry Martin, is the former secretary for the board. “We’re going to miss Ann, but Sherry has the same standards Ann has,” Byrd said. “Ann has done a good job of passing the baton to Sherry.”

Fuehrer said she decided to step down because as she gets older, she wants a job that requires less hours per week. She also stated that the role of executive director required new skill sets. “There are some particular electronic technologies that might benefit our efficiency, and I thought it was time for someone with different skills to take over,” she said.

Another key reason for her departure is because she wants to speak more openly and frankly about economic injustices in the community. “Rather than just being a safety net, I want to focus more on prevention, especially for the homeless,” she said.

Though she has stepped down from TOPSS, she still intends to be fully active in the community. As a member of Oxford Citizens for Peace and Justice, Fuehrer is now the office manager for the group. “I created a new job for myself,” she said with a laugh.

She is also the recording secretary for Oxford’s NAACP chapter and is on the social justice committee at the Hopedale Unitarian Universalist Community.

Byrd characterized Fuehrer as being like Florence Nightingale, who left her life of privilege in 19th Century England to become an army nurse in the Crimean War. Nightingale became a pioneering social reformer. “I understand she feels like it’s her time to go do more,” Byrd said of Fuehrer. 

According to Fuehrer, individuals can have a tremendous impact on the community. “Growing up, I didn’t really speak out unless I was invited to speak,” she said. However, that changed once she began to feel confident in her ability to make a difference.

“By listening and making what you hear a part of what you say, a lot of people are affected by what you do,” Fuehrer said. “A lot of women in their 60’s talk about the increased wisdom and confidence they feel, and there’s definitely wisdom that comes with life experience.”

Fuehrer “doesn’t quit,” said Byrd. “If she believes in something, she believes in it and lets you know. I like that a lot.”

Fuehrer said that we might have an understanding of certain problems, but the willpower to step up and do something about them is the most crucial aspect of offering help. “The sense of disempowerment and helplessness is what’s killing us,” she said. “I really want to encourage people to understand what they know and act on it.”