Throughout South County, another squad in the community COVID-response team has popped up: organizations that reach out to community members facing financial or mental health hardships.
The Independent has provided periodic stories about groups, organizations and businesses filling needs in the community. Their sponsors often say the motto “We’re in this together” is what draws supporters and volunteers into action.
During recent interviews, officials from the Jonnycake Center for Hope, St. Peter’s By the Sea Episcopal Church and Peace Dale Congregational Church explained how some of their programs assist community members coping with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
St. Peter’s By the Sea
“We continue to serve the population in Narragansett and South Kingstown who need help with food,” said Becky Johnson, co-chair of the church’s food pantry, called The Community Market.
It had been operating as a shoppers-choice farmers’ market-type food pantry for many years in the social hall of St. Peter’s, 72 Central St., Narragansett. Because of social distancing requirements, the Community Market can now be found on the parish front Fridays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
“Our philosophy has always been that we will welcome anyone who comes through our doors seeking food for themselves and their families,” Johnson said.
It has never required any financial-need documentation and it only asks for contact information for church files and household numbers to report to the RI Food Bank, she said.
“Our policy has not changed because of the pandemic, and, in fact, we continue to welcome people who need our help, be it for a week at a time, or for a much longer stretch,” Johnson said.
Some of The Community Market’s guests, as those who use it are called, are out of work due to the pandemic. Others are retired and living on social security or disability. They also have people who regularly pick up food items for people unable to leave their homes.
In April, as the pandemic worsened and social distancing requirements increased, The Community Market changed from a farmers market-style to a grab-and-go operation, Johnson said.
It offered pre-packed bags of food, fresh bread and produce and whatever frozen meat was available, she said.
People can now place orders after viewing a weekly inventory of food and “in this way our guests receive food that they want and that their families will eat,” she explained.
Before the move outdoors, often 20 or more people along with 10 volunteers would flock to the social hall.
Since the pandemic began, three to four volunteers have been filling guests’ orders and carrying their bags outside to be delivered across a table. Guests are expected to wear a mask and distance themselves, she said.
The scene at the market has changed, too, Johnson observed. Patrons, crowded in the hall, used to engage in lively conversations with each other, but now, because of social distancing requirements, the crowds are gone and the conversations have reduced, she said.
Like many organizations, The Community Market has seen a decrease in volunteers. Before the pandemic, more than 50 volunteers came during a single month. The number now is at around 12 and generally only regulars have been seen each week since March and April.
Rector Craig Swan is also involved with overseeing The Community Market. The church congregation gives, too, with financial gifts and food items.
Food items come from the RI Food Bank, Belmont Market, Cumberland Farms, Tase-Rite, Dollar Tree, and from numerous individuals and organizations that carry out food drives, such as Boy Scout Troops #1and #2, Wakefield Baptist Church and Friends of the Narragansett Library.
“During the pandemic we have received masks from the Women’s Club of South Kingstown and hand sanitizer from Sons of Liberty; both items were shared with our volunteers and our guests,” she said.
Those who help are sometimes also those who benefit.
“It is not uncommon for us to have a guest that is also a volunteer. Many of our guests are retired and living on small, fixed incomes and many are disabled,” she explained, noting that some work part-time and their employment has been suspended or reduced during the last several months.
Some work seasonal jobs that have not materialized this summer, she added.
“We will keep The Community Market going, but with the coming (change of) season and changing weather, we anticipate another transition to how the market distributes food,” she said.
“Whatever it looks like, we will make it safe and comfortable for our guests and we anticipate a day in the future when we can get back to normal, take a deep breath and not feel like we are spreading anything to anyone else,” Johnson said.
Jonnycake Center for Hope
The Jonnycake Center for Hope in Wakefield primarily serves the residents of South Kingstown, Narragansett, Block Island, and Jamestown. Approximately 35 percent of its members are children and 15 percent are seniors.
The adults served are low-wage working parents and people with disabilities living on a fixed income. It has a staff of seven full-time and as many part-time workers.
“While we receive very little state or federal funding, less than $10,000 a year, we are fortunate to operate in a very generous community where individuals, businesses, and philanthropic families and organizations believe in a shared responsibility for helping others meet their basic needs,” executive director Kate Brewster said.
She pointed to issues that often bring people to need assistance, such as a lack of transportation, poor health, a lack of child care, a need for food and clothing or complications from long or untraditional hours posing problems or hardships.
“Our new motto, ‘Here to Help,’ means going where the need is, whether someone’s home, a homeless shelter, hotel, or hospital,” she said.
She said many of her center’s members have health issues that place them at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 and more than fifteen percent are senior households. Serving these households meant significantly ramping up the center’s delivery of groceries and other basic needs.
It also meant finding new opportunities for assisting the center’s members, she said, including collaborating with the South County YMCA to secure camp opportunities at Camp Fuller and other facilities.
When discussing the unexpected challenges the coronavirus posed, Brewster said the center earlier this year had to kick off its school vacation meals program 11 weeks early with no preparation.
“We will have run this program more than twice as long as usual and served at least 50 percent more meals than in prior years,” she said.
“During the first weeks of the shut-down we were in the trenches with the school department trying to ensure everyone had access to the internet for distance learning, and we know now many of our families truly struggled technically and emotionally with children trying to learn at home,” she said.
“Next thing we knew, Block Island native and immigrant workers needed help, and we took three trips to the Island with thousands of pounds of food to meet that need,” she said.
“I think it’s fair to say the true impact of the crisis is about to be felt as enhanced unemployment and SNAP (federal food assistance) benefits disappear and unemployed parents are left scrambling to pay for the basics,” she said.
“Who knows what lies ahead,” Brewster said, with emphasis on the uncertainty for planning that is also faced by businesses, government and other non-profit organizations as the pandemic still grips them.
Peace Dale Congregational Church
The coronavirus pandemic tapped Peace Dale Congregational’s mission, “which means we follow Christ by focusing on serving our community,” said Pastor Fred Evenson.
He said that, among several responses to the pandemic, they have been mask-making and freely distributing masks to whoever needs them. Also, in response to COVID-related financial problems the community members faced, the church created a special Emergency Fund in May with about $10,000 to assist others.
“With the help of partners like the Jonnycake Center, we have already distributed most of that money to those in dire need, mainly in South County. We will likely be collecting more money in an effort to replenish the Emergency Fund as we are beginning to get calls from people facing eviction,” Evenson said.
“We’ve had requests from some of these folks for prayer from our Prayer Circle Ministry,” he added.
The pastor also said the church is discussing how it might start its Wednesday evening no-cost dinners for those in need again.
“We had to pause the dinner due to the pandemic, but are now exploring ways to restart it using a “take out” model. This serves people across South Kingstown, and volunteers hail from across the area, including from Narragansett and North Kingstown,” he said.
Evenson also said the church’s online worship is new and started in response to the social distancing requirements. The online effort extends today to the congregation’s Youth Connect - a form of religious education - through video conferencing.
“Fostering community is not easy when our primary mode of gathering is through Zoom (video conferencing) and other digital means,” the pastor said. “Fortunately, our congregation, in large part, has been able to adapt to the digital age and is now getting accustomed to ‘attending’ virtual meetings.”
“However, for some, snail mail and phone calls remain the best way to reach them,” the religious leader added with a flourish of traditionalism.
He also noted that loneliness from social distancing, fears of being in crowds and major changes to or curtailing of getting together with others are also appearing in the struggles people face.
“We have a Called to Care Ministry that reaches out to folks struggling with such emotional and spiritual issues,” the pastor said.