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After decades of feeding the hungry, Lester Cypher retires. Or does he?

Six days into his retirement, Lester Cypher said he knew he had to keep helping people. Just ask his wife. | C.T. Bowen
Lester Cypher, recently retired head of The Volunteer Way, accepts congratulations during a Nov. 19 Pasco County Commission meeting. [Pasco County]
Lester Cypher, recently retired head of The Volunteer Way, accepts congratulations during a Nov. 19 Pasco County Commission meeting. [Pasco County]
Published Dec. 2
Updated Dec. 2

Lester Cypher can’t help himself.

Cypher stepped away from the Volunteer Way at the end of October, 33 years after he began feeding the hungry in west Pasco.

Four weeks into his retirement and three days before Thanksgiving, he sat down with a journalist at the agency’s headquarters and food warehouse on Congress Street. Twice, he interrupted the interview to make sure someone handled a task: Get duplicate keys made for an office filing cabinet.

It’s that kind of hands-on work he says he will miss.

Cypher did what needed to be done for more than three decades building a faith-based charity that now distributes 7 million pounds of food annually. It feeds 25,000 families a month and provide staples to 70 food pantries and soup kitchens in Pasco and three other counties.

He swept the floors. Cleaned the bathroom. Arranged food drives. Nudged public officials for funding. And started each workday at 5 a.m. to enjoy the solitude. He never accepted a dime for his efforts.

The meetings and the bureaucracy? He won’t miss that.

He also misses helping people.

He was retired for all of six days when his wife of 64 years, Hilda, suggested he go get a job bagging groceries at Publix.

"Six days and my wife is telling me to go back to work?'' Cypher said. He figured he better find a way to stay busy.

So Cypher, 83, is looking around for his next career move. He wants to keep helping people, but he doesn’t want to duplicate anybody else’s efforts. He’s not sure what he’ll end up doing, but he’s thinking of some way to assist the elderly.

The people, he said, "who don’t ask for help.''

He has seen the need.

He visited a disabled woman’s home in Holiday a while ago to arrange lawn maintenance for her, only to discover that she lived in a house with a partially collapsed roof and no running water. He also cites a man who lived in a trailer with so many holes in the flooring, the Volunteer Way people delivering him food wouldn’t go inside.

"People don’t believe that (other) people live that way,'' he said, and the need is growing.

Volunteer Way’s brown bag program, similar to Meals on Wheels, delivers staples to homebound senior citizens so they can prepare meals at home. The client list has nearly doubled over the past two years to 220 individuals.

Cypher has not been shy about sharing his story or his mission. His adult life in Long Island was working, boozing and building successful businesses, not all of which he is proud. A slumlord, he called himself.

But the good life — the big house in Bethpage with a heated swimming pool and four new vehicles in the driveway — came crashing down after he invested in a business he said he knew nothing about, restaurants. He rebuilt. But he also remembers thinking, "I don’t want to be here anymore.''

In 1985, he made a clean break, called a real estate agent and rented a house near Moog Road in Holiday before settling in Orchid Lake Village in west Pasco. He started a pest-control company and during a chance telephone conversation with a customer’s family member, he turned his life over to Christ.

He believes his health has been restored two times — from a back injury and heart disease — with the power of prayer. He gave up working for himself, and he and Hilda survived on a monthly Social Security income of $2,485.

The Volunteer Way began via a faith-based food pantry that Cypher eventually separated from because the organization wanted to minister first and eat second. He thought it should be the other way around.

"If you’re hungry, and you’re coming to me. I’ll feed you,'' he said.

The Volunteer Way began in Cypher’s garage on March 13, 1992. One person showed up. Today, it’s an agency with 15 staff members and 250 volunteers. It owns three buildings, free of debt. There is a hydroponic garden to produce vegetables and a mobile pantry to deliver food to isolated food deserts.

The agency runs multiple programs, including a soup kitchen, shower and resource center out of a strip center off Moon Lake Road. The county owns that property and leases it for $1-a-year to the Volunteer Way, but the building will be demolished when the county widens Moon Lake Road.

Cypher acknowledges that as one of his regrets. He has been unable to find property in that vicinity for a permanent facility to aid the needy. He also wished he could have planted fruit trees and offered lessons to the public on how to preserve and can fresh produce.

There haven’t been many regrets, however. He career was recognized by Pres. George H.W. Bush’s Daily Point of Light. The Tampa Bay Lightning tabbed him a community hero, and the Florida Senate bestowed him with its spirit of service award. Last week, the Pasco County Commission joined in with a resolution thanking him for his generosity to the county’s citizenry.

Even so, the guy who can’t help himself, still plans to help others.

"It’s a part of my life,'' said Cypher. "It’s hard to say, ‘That’s it, Lester.' '’

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