As the coronavirus pandemic brought the American economy to a screeching halt and threw millions out of work this spring, two questions weighed heavily on the minds of educators and students throughout the Sullivan Foundation’s network of partner schools: When will things get back to normal, and what will “normal” look like? Seemingly overnight, their world had been turned upside down. Classrooms and dorms were emptied. Professors scrambled to wrap up their courses online with half a semester still to go. Cash-strapped institutions grappled with unprecedented financial challenges as tax revenues fell off a cliff. Campuses turned into ghost towns, and their surrounding communities—dependent on students to support local businesses—felt the losses just as keenly.
Suddenly, the future, always unknowable, felt unthinkable. There was only one thing to do: get out into these struggling communities, size up the problems and start solving them. In towns and cities across the South, Sullivan schools and their servant leaders have stepped up to help, launching initiatives to combat food insecurity, support frontline healthcare workers and provide services for the most vulnerable populations.
Feeding the Need
At Mary Baldwin University (MBU) in Staunton, Va., President Pamela Fox made the difficult decision to suspend in-seat classes and shift to online study on March 13. By March 24, most students had gone home. But Kerry Mills, an assistant professor of art history and MBU Online advisor, stayed busy as a volunteer with Underground Kitchen, bringing free food—including artisanal soups and breads prepared by local chefs—to families in need around Richmond.
Mills makes deliveries twice a week to about a dozen residences while practicing social distancing and wearing a mask. “Good food is something I am passionate about, and food insecurity has always been an important issue for me,” she said. “With the pandemic, more people—whether shut in at home, at work in a hospital, or on a limited budget due to job loss—are facing issues of access to a nutritious meal, so this seemed like a project I could get behind.”
MBU students were quick to get involved, too. Fouzia Ishtiaq, an MBU Online student, coordinated volunteers to cook and provide meals to the elderly through her own nonprofit organization. Josh Smith, another MBU Online student, opened a daycare for the children of first responders and healthcare professionals in Henrico County.
In the Charlottesville, Va. area, where one in six people were coping with food insecurity before the pandemic, University of Virginia (UVA) campus leaders like Brooke Ray stepped forward to help. In addition to serving as the operations manager at UVA’s Global Policy Center, Ray is a member of the planning team for Cultivate Charlottesville’s Food Justice Network, a collective of community organizations focused on racial equity, health and food security. “Nonprofits and grassroots groups in our network have seen an increase in demand for services while they have also had to pivot to helping people shelter in place, often relying on volunteers and facing supply shortages,” Ray said. “Many of our community members were already struggling and are now facing even more acute concerns and, with new unemployment issues, others are emerging in need of support.”
To meet these growing needs, the Global Policy Center and the UVA Equity Center have been providing logistical and financial support to the Food Justice Network and other community groups. Their work supports organizations like the PB&J Fund, which provides 300-plus bagged meals each Friday to families in need, and the Local Food Hub, a nonprofit that partners with farmers to get fresh, locally grown produce into more neighborhoods.
Shantell Bingham, community director at the UVA Equity Center and program director for the Food Justice Network, said it’s crucial to get local citizens involved in these programs to ensure equitable distribution of services to vulnerable populations. “We have to set up programs that are driven by community members and to get people who are living these issues day in and day out [to] the table,” she said. “We want to talk with people about what best meets their needs and how we can set up food delivery, for example, to meet those needs.”
Bolstering the Front Line
Alumni from Davidson College and the University of Kentucky (UK) identified another unmet need—two, actually—in their communities. In response, they organized chapters of a nonprofit called Feed the Front Line (FTFL) to fulfill a twofold mission: deliver free meals to healthcare workers fighting the pandemic while generating revenue for local restaurants struggling to stay afloat as customers sheltered at home.
With chapters in cities nationwide, FTFL purchases bulk meal orders from local eateries, and volunteers deliver the meals to hospitals, testing sites and other healthcare locations. The result is a two-sided impact for every dollar raised—cash-starved restaurants receive 100 percent of the proceeds, while stressed-out frontline workers get their spirits boosted during long, exhausting shifts.
“We saw a need and wanted to meet that need,” said John Stein, a 2019 graduate of UK. “We believe many people feel that same desire to help in any way possible. One of the most powerful things is seeing how people rally behind the cause for the common good.”
Jean-Ann Washam, executive director of Carson-Newman University’s Appalachian Outreach Ministry, has also seen a surge in generosity to match rising demand for services around Jefferson City, Tenn. Her organization operates the Samaritan House, which helps families who are experiencing a housing crisis, as well as a food distribution ministry. “We’ve had a really good community response,” she said. “We’ve had people recognize that we need additional food because we have new families [using Samaritan House services]. They’ve bought food and given monetary donations.”
Taking care of people in need during a pandemic puts Appalachian Outreach volunteers at risk themselves, Washam noted. But they keep showing up anyway. “Despite their own health concerns, our volunteers understand that there are people who would not have food if they were not here,” she added. “I think in the middle of a crisis, this is just affirmation that this is a community that works together in good times and bad. We just pull together.”
This article contains information and quotes compiled from several press releases issued by Sullivan partner schools.