"I don't need much to pay my bills, so why not give it to somebody who needs it more than I do?" Tidwell tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
Updated July 09, 2015 11:05 AM
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Credit: Joel Culberson

Charolette Tidwell has seen the signs of hunger in her hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas – from senior citizens buying cat food because they can’t afford tuna fish to children going hungry on weekends when they can’t get free school lunches.

Although she has always given what she could to impoverished seniors and families, the former nurse decided 15 years ago that more needed to be done to help the hungry in a state ranked No. 1 in the nation in low food security by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tidwell started a food pantry and used her own pension to help feed more than 7,000 people a month.

“She’s an angel who gives everything she can and never expects anything in return,” says Robyn Smith, 41, a single mother raising nine children in Fort Smith.

Smith says she depends on Tidwell’s monthly food baskets to get her family through the month.

“I don’t know what I’d do without her. Charolette Tidwell is the most caring, good-hearted person I’ve ever met, she tells PEOPLE.

Tidwell, the sixth of 10 children born to Nathaniel Jones, a chef, and Leodell Jones, a domestic worker, was raised in poverty but never knew hunger because her family maintained a one-acre fruit and vegetable garden.

“We had chickens in the backyard and a cow named Bo-Bo,” she tells PEOPLE. “We didn’t have much, but what we did have, my mother taught us to share. Whenever somebody was sick, I would help her to deliver their family a meal of hot soup.”

When she graduated from nursing school, Tidwell continued that tradition on her own, cooking and delivering free hot dinners to senior citizens in her neighborhood.

“She’d prepare the meals on her own on a Saturday, then deliver them to anyone who needed them,” recalls Mary Ann Simpson, 84, whose parents were recipients of Tidwell’s kindness in the 1960s. “She’s always been a jewel in the community. You know that old saying, ‘It takes a village?’ Charolette has been that village for all of us in Fort Smith.”

With help from community volunteers, Tidwell now works unpaid, six days a week, for her Antioch Youth and Family charity, donating more than 50 percent of her monthly pension toward the purchase of food supplies.

“I feel very blessed that I’m able to do it,” says Tidwell, “and I don’t need much to pay my bills. My home is paid for, I drive an old car and I don’t take vacations. I’m not going to take anything with me, so why not give it to somebody who needs it more than I do?”

Tidwell, who personally delivers food boxes to nine senior citizen centers and dozens of families every month, says she hopes to concentrate future efforts on helping troubled teens turn their lives around and get college scholarships.

“We need to do the things that give a kid a sense of hope,” she says, “and that begins with making sure they have enough to eat. Even one child going hungry is one too many.”

Find out more about Tidwell’s efforts (and how you can help) here.

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com. For more inspiring stories, read the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine