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We had a little excitement at Stepping Stones recently.

I was working away at my desk when I suddenly saw a sheriff’s deputy run past my window. He was clearly chasing someone. We hadn’t heard any sirens but, sure enough, there was a sheriff’s car in the parking lot, blocking another car.

Apparently the deputy had been following someone who pulled into our lot and who was probably hoping the deputy would keep going.

But when the deputy also pulled in, the person made a run for it. He ran behind the Winter Haven shelter next to the pantry building, not knowing there’s a fence that borders the back and sides of the property. Of course, the deputy caught up with him.

Soon there was a police car at the shelter and then several police and sheriff’s department vehicles in the food pantry lot. Then came the car search.

The first thing to come out was an open beer bottle…not a good sign. Then there were other suspicious looking things like a syringe and baggies of something. Yikes.

The law enforcement officials don’t think this person was coming to Stepping Stones. He wasn’t even from Dunn County. But the police and sheriffs’ cars were in our lot for about an hour.

It was just shortly before the pantry was about to open and we (the staff and volunteers gawking out the windows!) kept thinking how bad this would look to people driving by who might assume it was one of our clients getting into trouble.

We do serve people who have “gotten into trouble” — they need food and shelter just like everyone else.

But we primarily serve law-abiding, hardworking people who can’t make ends meet on low-wage jobs, are just going through a difficult time or, perhaps, are retired and living on a very limited income.

There are sometimes misperceptions about who uses a food pantry or stays at a homeless shelter.

It’s hard not to stereotype people. A couple of the officers in the parking lot that day were in street clothes (jeans & T-shirts) and we thought they were our clients checking things out until we saw them putting on gloves for collecting evidence from the car.

I’ve sometimes seen people walk by my office window who I assume are clients based on how they look and then they come in and make a donation. I’m caught short by my own stereotypes and I should definitely know better.

Stepping Stones serves people from all walks of life. Some may drive nice cars but the reality is they may be living in them.

Or they maybe just got laid off and may not be able to make their car payments much longer or even afford gas.

I mention this because we occasionally hear comments about the nice cars in our parking lot. They could also be volunteers’ cars — when it’s one of our busy times we can have as many as 10 or more volunteers here.

Hopefully we’re taught early on in our lives, “don’t judge a book by the cover.”

But we often do that even without meaning to. We stereotype people by their looks, their race or religion, their income.

I was reminded by our parking lot excitement — don’t do that! Just like anyone can be a terrorist or a traffic cop or even a trapeze artist, economic hardship, hunger and homelessness can happen to anyone.

There’s not a look. Lesson learned (again!).

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Katherine Dutton is the executive director of Stepping Stones of Dunn County. She can be reached at director@steppingstonesdc.org

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