BENTON — Vicki Seagel is nowhere near retiring. At 61, she said she has a deal with God to keep on working for another 20 years. After that, she said they will regroup and see about another 20.
Seagel is the director of the Benton/West City Ministerial Alliance’s food pantry and is almost completely blind. She has developed a system at the food bank the allows her to fill bags for its patrons, despite having only about 20 percent vision in one eye. Her hands move over every box, counting each grocery item, making sure every brown paper sack is filled just right.
She pushes a grocery cart through aisles and aisles of donated food to find exactly what she needs.
Seagel lost her eyesight in 2002 after tumors grew in both of her eyes, causing one to rupture and the other to bleed. Her left eye was replaced with a prosthetic, and surgeries to save the eyesight on her right eye left her completely blind.
She was devastated.
The loss of her eyesight caused her to lose the three jobs she worked just to get by, and ultimately put her on the streets, she said.
“I literally had it planned out that I was going to kill myself,” Seagel remembered. She told God that if something did not happen, that was it. She was done. The next morning she said she woke up and could see a little bit of light and later could make out rough shapes. This was enough.
After losing her jobs, Seagel was given a disability check but felt she had to do something. She did not want to be paid for being idle, so she begged for volunteer work from the First Christian Church.
She was told to take over the food bank there.
“Within two weeks, he handed me the entire process,” Seagel said.
Her medical problems did not end there, though. Late last year, Seagel bounced from doctor to doctor to find out more about a variety of medical problems when a large tumor was found in her gut. No one gave her good news and she was prepared to “go home,” as she put it. However, while at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Seagel was told her tumor was benign. She was told she had a condition that produced tumors without spreading as cancer. She was relieved and it was then that she vowed to give another 20 years to her ministry.
Though she leans heavily on God now, this has not always been the case. Seagel said by age 16 she walked away from her faith. Spirituality was more religion than it was faith, Seagel remembered.
“I had all these rules and regulations,” she said. It was not until she was 25 that she found her way back to church. She started working for a church as a janitor in order to get away from people. She said she was angry with the world and seeing the smiling faces on the church-goers only made it worse.
“They had something I wanted and I couldn’t figure out (what) it was,” she said. After talking for nine months with the pastor at the First Christian Church in Benton, she realized it was a relationship with God that she was after. This began her 37 years in her ministry, working with the poor.
The food bank sits just beyond the railroad tracks, to the south of Benton’s historic town square. Inside is a long service counter and behind it a bank of metal shelves holding brown grocery sacks of food while the tops are a wall of red — home to a part of Seagel’s Elmo doll collection.
At last count, Seagel has 520 pieces of Elmo memorabilia, all kept at the food bank. It all started with one doll.
In 2007, a little boy came in to donate some of his toys — the ones his mom said he was too old for — and Seagel saw an Elmo doll. She had no idea who Elmo was, but she liked the toy and asked if she could have it. Red is essentially the only color, beyond shades of gray, she can see. The boy said yes. After that, word got out that she liked the red Sesame Street monster and the dolls flooded in. Seagel plans to have a big giveaway when she retires. If the trend stays the same, she could have thousands of dolls by then.
Seagel, who now lives with her younger sister, Kim Aiken, grew up the middle child in a desperately poor family in Benton.
“Sometimes we didn’t have water in the house. Most times, there wasn’t enough food,” she said. “We thought this was normal.” She is not bitter about the experience, though.
“I thank God I was placed in that,” Seagel said. “If I had not lived that lifestyle then I could not serve this lifestyle.”
While she works with a smile on her face — the hundreds of grinning Elmo dolls certainly help — Seagel said there is plenty of heartache in what she does. She vividly recalls a scene with a young child no more than 9 years old, who came in nearly 10 years ago with a funny walk.
She said she asked him, “Hey, bud, what’s wrong,” to which he answered that his feet hurt. He had his mother’s shoes on.
“We had just received a shipment of brand new tennis shoes,” Seagel said. She called him to the back of the store, typically a no-no, and told him he was going to get new shoes. Then she looked at his feet.
“I looked down and those little toes were just as black as mud,” Seagel remembered. “I went and got a bucket of water and a cloth and I was washing his feet.” She then became overwhelmed with what she was doing.
“All of the sudden I think, ‘You are doing Jesus’ work,’” she said, recalling Christ washing the feet of his disciples. The tears began to stream down her face and the boy looked at her, taking her face in his hands and asked, “Why are you crying, Ms. Vicki?” She started to explain by telling him the story. He was so excited he finished the tale for her.
After the dirt began to fade, she saw what was causing his funny walk.
“As I’m washing his feet and the tears are still coming, he’s got blisters and cuts and his toenails are broken,” she said. Seagel said she asked him how long it had been since he had a pair of shoes. She said he shrugged and said never, really. He said he had always picked up whatever shoes were closest to wear.
As she finished washing his feet, she asked him what size shoe he wore. He thought he wore a three-and-a-half size shoe — his actual size was a seven. This proved to her how long it had been since he had worn shoes of his own.
She said he could not have been more thrilled with his gift.
“I can run faster than Superman,” she remembered him saying, doing laps around the back of the food bank. Seagel said he has come in and is now attending SIU.
While those moments are never easy, Seagel is thankful every day for her work at what she sometimes refers to as “God’s grocery store.”
“Coming up here is one of the greatest gifts God gave me,” she said. “This is the greatest job in the world.”