BARSTOW — Tiffany McQueen on Friday looked over the boxes of food stacked in front of her while listening to Desert Manna CEO and President Darrin Fiskstad talk about the nonprofit's food bank and pantry.
McQueen, a Silver Lakes resident and soldier stationed at the Fort Irwin National Training Center, wanted to know what Desert Manna was all about. That's because in two months she will be jumping into the 50-degree water of the Pacific Ocean in Santa Cruz to swim for food without wearing a wet suit.
And it's all for food for the needy.
"Since you are talking about food, this is our warehouse. You recognize these?" Fikstad asked McQueen, pointing to boxes from Fort Irwin stacked against the wall. "The military makes sure nothing is going to the dump. We supply to 32 other nonprofit organizations. About 80 percent of it right now is going to the greater Barstow area. That's Barstow, the rural communities of Yermo, Daggett, Newberry Springs and Hinkley."
That's exactly the information McQueen wanted to hear.
"There were times in my life, such as the first time I got out of the Army from 1994-1996, and in 2004-2005 when I was out of the Army to finish my undergraduate degree and my Montgomery GI bill ran out," McQueen says on her fundraising webpage, "when I didn't have a dollar to my name and had to rely on others to help me out. I was very lucky to have been afforded an opportunity to go back into the Army in 1996 and to have found my way to becoming a veterinarian and, more recently, a marathon swimmer."
And now a midlife crisis has led McQueen to raising money for Desert Manna. Each swimmer participating in the Jan. 14 Santa Cruz mile swim gets to pick a food bank. The Will Swim for Food event was organized to raise money to help alleviate hunger in communities, according to its website. It started as an annual fundraiser for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County and is tied in with the annual holiday food drive.
It's held as close as possible to the Winter Solstice to ensure cold water.
McQueen has set a goal of raising $3,000 for Desert Manna. Donors who want to support McQueen's quest can go to give.classy.org/swimgypsy.
McQueen was stationed in Germany when she decided she wanted to do more in her life. It was her midlife crisis.
"I just felt like I wanted to start swimming. Probably because I didn't have a place to swim there," McQueen said. "So when I came back to the states, I started swimming in a master swim club. In about a year I head about marathon swimming."
She recalled while growing up in Tampa, Florida, the annual 24-mile swim that starts at the tip of St. Petersburg.
"I said I would love to do that," she said.
McQueen looked into registering, but she had to list prior swim experience. She had none. So she registered for other swims. She "miraculously" finished her first one with her husband, John, as her support team.
"I dragged him (John) into it," she said. "But I think he likes it. He might tell you otherwise.
"I said, 'you have to buy a kayak. We are going to Key West.' He bought a kayak, went to Key West and did the swim around Key West. And we finished.
"That wasn't a proper marathon swim because at the last minute I switched to the fins category so I could be done in time for dinner. Because after doing a few swims, I knew my approximate speed and it was not fast."
Another crisis hit when the Army sent her to Fort Irwin, away from oceans.
"I was devastated because I thought my newly found passion for swimming long distances in open water was over," she said. "On the contrary, my marathon swimming career has blossomed since moving here."
She and her husband purchased a home in Silver Lakes and McQueen trains in the South Lake there.
"I completed 11 marathon swims in 2015 and 14 marathon swims this year, to include being recognized by the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association as the 69th person to swim the 12.5-mile channel from Anacapa Island to the mainland (Oxnard) on Nov. 4. I completed the swim in 10 hours, 9 minutes and 40 seconds in 61- to 63-degree water without a wet suit.
"That was the longest I have done. It was the scariest one I have done. I jumped into the ocean at 1 o'clock in the morning in the dark. And swimming in the dark was scary."
Fikstad thanked McQueen for choosing Desert Manna.
"It's a great time to be giving," Fikstad said. "It's a great time to be raising money. We thank you. That's great."
"I really didn't know much or anything about this organization. I drive by every day to work," McQueen said. "I'm excited. ... I love I can go swim with my friends, but I can't just swim for me this time. I can swim to give back to this community."
"To me, this is excellent," said Tom Malone, vice president of the Desert Manna board. He tagged along during McQueen's tour.
"This is what we pray for."
Mike Lamb can be reached at 760-957-0613 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter @mlambdispatch.