Upbeat and cheerful through a bittersweet season, Kroger employees welcomed Good Samaritan Ministries to the store Thursday morning to collect dozens of boxes of groceries — Kroger shoppers’ gift to the community as the Souper Bowl of Caring campaign gets under way.
    Kroger corporate officials announced earlier this month the Brownwood store will be closing in early March, and the store’s 61 employees determined that their store would still participate in the annual Souper Bowl of Caring.
    The Souper Bowl of Caring is a national initiative that encourages communities to help those in need in the days and weeks before the Super Bowl. Brownwood’s Kroger location has been participating for years, and Kroger shoppers can donate a bag of food or make a monetary donation at the register from now until Super Bowl Sunday. In Brownwood, the campaign — which began Wednesday and ends Super Bowl Sunday — benefits Good Samaritan Ministries.
    Kroger employees have assembled hundreds of boxes that are packed with spaghetti and sauce, peanut butter and four cans of vegetables. A shopper can take a box of groceries to the register, and the cashier will ring up a purchase of $5.67 per box. After the customer pays for the groceries, each box will be placed in a bin to await distribution to Good Samaritan.
    Good Samaritan Ministries Executive Director Leesa Stephens and staff members Heather Thomas, Royce Jesko and Angela Hernandez arrived at the store Thursday morning, and Jesko and Hernandez loaded about 120 boxes of groceries onto a flatbed trailer. A Kroger employee announced over the public address system each time a customer bought a Souper Bowl of Caring box, prompting shouts of “Whoo!”
    “We sold $694 worth (Wednesday) alone, and we plan on topping every day the next day,” Kroger manager Jason McLaughlin said. “We’re going to try to build momentum to the end, and hopefully we can leave a great donation here as we leave town — something that will last long after we’re gone.”
    Participating in the campaign for the last time “means a lot to the associates here — the loyal customers and each other,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a big family here — been a family here for a long time. We’ve got a lot of long-term associates here.
    “This campaign means the most to us because it’s our favorite campaign of the year with our favorite organization, so we’re really trying to do the most good we can as we leave the area.”
    McLaughlin said the store’s final day of business will be March 6, and employees’ morale is good. “It’s tough at times, as everybody tries to figure out what it is they’re going to do personally,” McLaughlin said.
    “But the campaign definitely helps the morale, lets us all have something to whoop and holler about, and be together as a team and as a family one last time.”
    Stephens said Good Samaritan Ministries and all of Brown County are heartbroken at the loss of a community and ministry partner.
    “Kroger has been such a rock for us — not just the Souper Bowl of Caring, but the other events and activities,” Stephens said. “We recognize that the 61 employees feel uncertain, and we do too. But we have the confidence that God is faithful, and many times we’ve seen in the Bible that things that were mean for bad, God turned them into good.
    “So right now we’re not seeing the good, but we are believing that God can take even this disappointment and turn it into something positive.”
    Stephens said the groceries supplied through the campaign will go to Good Samaritan’s food pantry. “That’s what we provide to the families, and we are especially excited about the peanut butter,” Stephens said. “Going all the way back to Hurricane Harvey in September, peanut butter has been very difficult to get. It’s not in the food banks, and Kroger has helped us with peanut butter.
    “Each of the items in the box represents a meal or meals for a needy family in Brown County. We can’t underestimate how important that is to our Brown County residents.”
    Kroger officials in the Dallas division suggested a goal of $8,500 for the Brownwood store, but employees here hope to triple that amount, McLaughlin said earlier.