The Washington Post asked readers to describe 2020 in one word. They received over 2,000 responses and the top three answers were exhausting, lost, and chaotic. Although this sample size only included 2,000 people, I think we can agree that each and every one of us has felt the chaos of 2020, and are lost and exhausted because of it.
I wasn’t really surprised by the answers, except “lost” was throwing me for a loop. I thought more about what the readers meant by that. Did they mean that it 2020 was lost time? Did they mean that because of the events of 2020 they felt lost? Or was everyone speaking to the tragic number of lives lost to COVID-19?
I dug a little deeper and the article included a quote from one of the many individuals that submitted the word “lost.”
This reader said, “We’ve lost our way as a country. The year was lost for students, families, weddings, holidays, positive human interaction. Lives we lost unnecessarily to disease. It feels like being lost in the wilderness with no compass.”
That quote seems to answer the questions I had above, and it appears that this word does have a multitude of meanings when describing this past year. I then shifted gears and thought about how this word pertains to St. Stephen’s Community House, my place of employment that was severely affected by COVID-19.
St. Stephen’s has always been a place that people could gather, and then one day, they couldn’t.
“It’s impossible to list all of the ways that this pandemic has affected our community and our programs, but I just think about our seniors losing their social group, our clients losing their jobs, our teachers losing their students, and our staff losing their daily routines,” said Ray Rhone IV, our Food and Nutrition Center Assistant Coordinator.
The shut down affected all areas of life at St. Stephen’s, but the program that I want to highlight today is our Food and Nutrition Center. When we shut our doors to St. Stephen’s, we knew closing the Food and Nutrition Center was out of the question. Our community needs food, and we correctly predicted that that need would only grow as the pandemic raged on.
On March 12th, it was a normal day at the FNC. Consumers sat in the waiting room, shopped the aisles for their groceries, and went home with bags full of food for their families. By Monday, March 15th, our building was closed, and we were operating a drive-through pantry with prepared food boxes.
Our staff in the FNC made this transition look easy, but the truth is that they had many hurdles that they had to face. For one, we could not have any volunteers and could have very limited staff assisting. This meant that staff from each department was coming to assist. We had individuals from every department that stepped up to help our FNC staff feed our community.
They also made the decision that we needed to open our FNC up to all zip codes, rather than the eight that we were originally serving. They realized in these unprecedented times that we had to increase our capacity to serve, all while battling a pandemic.
“It’s impossible to list all of the ways that this pandemic has affected our community and our programs, but I just think about our seniors losing their social group, our clients losing their jobs, our teachers losing their students, and our staff losing their daily routines.” – Ray Rhone, Assistant FNC Coordinator
This was a quick shift, with our staff having to work out a new plan to feed people safely, almost overnight. “I had so many questions; How do we keep everyone safe? How is this going to work? And then I had to remind myself that we didn’t have another option, we had to make this work. People depended on us,” said Amy Kerns, our Director of Neighborhood Services.
Amy was right. People were depending on us, in fact, more people than ever before. In the first week of the pandemic, we saw 442 families, and a 339% increase in new households, in total, the first month saw 1,919 households, and now, a year into this new drive-thru model, we have fed 23,055 families, equating to 87,569 people fed.
Rain, shine, sleet, or snow, our Food and Nutrition Center staff was, and continues to serve over 100 families a day.
We’ve met many families that have never experienced food insecurity before; people with full-time jobs that had been laid off, people who had to quarantine due to COVID-19 and didn’t get PTO, people with children who could not work because their childcare center was shut down. People from all walks of life were pulling up in our line weekly, all with different back stories, and I can’t help but to wonder how many of the felt lost pulling into our parking lot for the first time.
It’s overwhelming to see a line of cars snaking through our parking lot into the street, and it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that so many people in our community are in need. One thread of positivity I hold on to, is that once these consumers interacted with our staff, you could visibly see the way they relaxed.
I watched as Ray, Lydia, and Kyle, our FNC Coordinators, remembered the names of our consumers, asked them about children or pets, or just made small talk to lift spirits. I watched as they handed out special treats for kids in the car or tried to specialize boxes for those that had different dietary needs. I watched as they tried to make this experience as enjoyable as possible for our community that was in need. While many enter our premises feeling lost and exhausted from the chaos, I’d like to think that they leave with kind words, a car full of food, and a little hope.
Since learning more about the virus, and how to keep individuals safe, we’ve been lucky to be able to open up a small amount of volunteer shifts to the public. We now have dedicated volunteers that have used their time during the pandemic to give back, and they are the only reason we are able to serve at the capacity that we do. Many of our volunteers often tell us that they look forward to coming to St. Stephen’s every week because it is such a positive environment and a light through all of the darkness. Jack, one our volunteers that started with us last November, said that “the Food and Nutrition Center is truly one of the best services he’s been involved in.”
At the end of the day, this is a simple operation; people drive up and receive a food box, but it is so much more than that. From our staff, to our volunteers, to our resilient community, the operation at St. Stephen’s Community House is special. The individual in the Washington Post article said that they felt, “lost in the wilderness with no compass,” and I think St. Stephen’s has always been a “compass.” We are a tool that can help lost individuals and guide them to better days. We are there during the darkest of days to lead the way.