SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — For trapped senior citizens who have become homebound-prisoners of coronavirus fears and restrictions, Belmont Market is a lifeline — not just an ordinary food line — to the outside world.
Whether in South Kingstown or surrounding towns of Narragansett, North Kingstown and even across the water to Block Island, Belmont’s many volunteers — on the phone or bringing groceries to the door — are a welcome sight to these customers.
“It’s absolutely amazing. They are there to help you…they go out of their way to help you,” said Patricia Morrison, who with her husband, Bill, are in their 70s and live in Narragansett.
“It’s simply a godsend this delivery,” added Morrison.
It could happen because this locally owned and small grocery store sought the help of scores of volunteers when a crisis loomed for its older, shut-in and vulnerable customers. In early March surging requests for delivery turned the wait from days to weeks for food and other necessary household deliveries, items part of everyday survival.
Belmont knew, said Susan Hoopes, the store’s marketing manager, something extraordinary was needed to help all these customers whom staff knew by name, family, children and preferences for food like steaks, hamburgers and prepared Italian lasagna.
The survival of this business’s reputation with loyal customers intersected with their dependence on the store.
In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health and until death do they part, there’s a core group of older regular and devoted customers married to Belmont and its staff who make the store special. Now was Belmont’s turn to be there for them.
The Call for Help
The alarm sounded one mid-March day, Hoopes recalled, when more than 1,000 online inquiries hit the store’s website for ordering and the system couldn’t give a delivery date.
It also seemed that other delivery services from surrounding food stores slipped into hibernation or were also overwhelmed by demand, she added. Phone calls then started flooding the store located in its plaza at 600 Kingstown Road.
“It was heart-breaking to talk to senior after senior after senior pretty much telling them that we couldn’t help them,” she said.
The volume over the usual 20 online orders a day was so large that “the need just completely wiped out any online shopping ability for anyone in our area,” Hoopes said.
Meanwhile, across from Point Judith and Galilee is tiny Block Island off the Rhode Island coast. Its winter population can be as small as 1,000 residents. Its one grocery store — Block Island Grocery — in early April limited service to curbside pick-up.
Hoopes said the mainland Belmont store quickly saw an increase in Block Island demand — whether seniors or others — and her store had always served the island by fulfilling small numbers of orders and sending them by ferry at Point Judith.
“The first week we did this we were overwhelmed with Block Island orders. We filled up the beds of three pick-ups and drove to the ferry. We packed and iced the bags to keep things fresh,” she said.
Belmont started putting together a quick-response team unlike anything it had ever done or needed to do in the past.
“We reached out to the larger volunteer groups first,” said Hoopes. “Lucky for us, they were ready, willing and able to contact their membership to see what they could do to get everyone in.”
She said, “It was cross our fingers and it worked. And some of the volunteers are even seniors themselves. It’s big that they’re kind of putting their own fears aside and coming in two or three times a week and shopping for seniors.”
To the rescue for Belmont, seniors and others with compromising conditions came together as an army of more than 50 volunteers. They represented ordinary area residents wanting to help along with local organizations having a stake in holding together the community fabric and crafting a safety net for those in need.
These included the Narragansett Lions Club, The Elks Club in South Kingstown, Southern Rhode Island Volunteers, the South County YMCA, the South Kingstown Fire Department and even the small and one-person Jennifer’s Chocolates at the Wakefield Mall.
In addition, many other volunteers made masks for Belmont workers and volunteers. Among the mask makers were the “Sewing Sisters,” a group of 20 women associated with Peace Dale Congregational Church and Meadowbrook Waldorf School. They have made more than 1,500, turning out 100 or more every day or so for stores, hospitals and others in the area wanting them.
The Task of Volunteers
Volunteers decided to alternate hours, days of coverage and pitch in to help in whatever way is needed, said Todd Evans, a spokesman for the Elks.
In essence, their tasks involve taking phone orders, shopping through the store for those orders, bringing items to the checkout line where a Belmont staffer tallies the order and calls the customer for payment, he explained.
Afterwards, a volunteer fills bags with the groceries and then sets them up for deliveries that start in the morning, he said.
When the order arrives at a home, customers’ relieved faces tell the story of gratitude for both the delivery and often even a chance to talk with someone, he said.
“People are happy just to see someone. They are alone in the house. They’ve been secluded, and you can see they like to see someone else and hear ‘Hi, how are you?’” he said.
Jennifer Dowell, owner of Jennifer’s Chocolates, takes orders over the phone at Belmont. She said that customers sometimes like to stay on the phone just for a few extra moments of that human connection.
“What do I hear in their voices? I hear fear, sometimes tiredness and gratitude that someone in trying to help them,” she said.
South Kingstown Town Council member Deb Kelso, who belongs to the Narragansett Lions Club, volunteers at Belmont. As a town official, her ear to the ground often listens for rumblings and other sentiments about life in South County.
“I hear gratitude. People are frustrated. The more we can alleviate the fears of a vulnerable population, the better the outcome,” she said, adding, “For me, volunteering brings to me such a real touch with my community.”
The Value of Needed Assistance
That mission of mercy and help rings true for residents like the Rudges, Joyce, 72, and Peter, 73, who live in North Kingstown.
“We are so indebted to the wonderful Southern Rhode Island Volunteers. Because of them, people like us with asthma — and over 70 — can feel safe at home during this pandemic and still get food delivery,” said Joyce Rudge.
“Belmont Market is absolutely wonderful and is high on our list. I try not to do big orders,” she said, because she wants volunteers’ time spent on other people as well.
Her sympathy for the work of volunteers is well placed. Belmont’s Susan Hoopes said, “Some days we are doing over a 100 orders a day and doing that kind of volume for same-day service we knew we needed this army of people.”
Belmont once did about 20 online orders a day and now does about 40 while also taking between 50 to 100 calls for delivery orders, said Hoopes.
For 87-year-old Delores Jefferies, who has lived alone in West Kingston after her husband died two years ago, delivery is a throwback to a bygone time. “The idea that my groceries are delivered to me takes me back to the old days,” she added.
Like others, she does not want to visit stores with public traffic for fear of getting the coronavirus.
As others reach out to help those like Jefferies, they show an undying spirit of community commitment resurrected with gusto when needed in difficult times, said Robert Zarnetske, South Kingstown town manager.
From his perch overseeing a large snapshot of the community, Belmont’s and the volunteers’ actions show the importance of each person in a tight network of caregivers, he noted.
“If there’s a silver lining to this COVID crisis,” Zarnetske said, “it’s that the indomitable human spirit, ingenuity, resourcefulness, and decency have all been on daily display to remind us that we all matter and we all make a difference.”