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“Community” is more than our middle name,
it’s embedded into who we are.
“Hope” is more than our State’s motto,
it’s embedded into everything we do.
365 days ago, our world changed. The second Friday in March of 2020, COVID-19 hit our community with a vengeance, and changed every aspect of our lives. A year later, I want to check in with all of you. I’m reflecting on where we’ve been and where we’re going.
How are you, really? It’s been a brutal 12 months for every. single. one. of us. The pandemic dropped fear, anxiety, and hardship on every doorstep. We’ve been united in uncertainty, not knowing what even the next week would look like.
The past year has been different, but that “different” looks different for each of us.
Some of the changes were inconvenient and stressful, but we coped. Suddenly “Zooming” took on entirely new meaning. We’ve hoarded toilet paper, doomscrolled on our devices, and built colorful collections of cloth masks. We’ve learned to greet each other with elbow bumps. We’ve stood in long lines to get our brains stuck with a Q-tip. We’ve said “I miss you” so many times, it’s exhausting. We’ve had to learn to work from home at the same table where the kids did distance learning.
Other changes broke our hearts. We’ve cancelled graduations and birthdays and weddings. We’ve been separated for a year from our aging family members who’ve never needed us more. We’ve lost wages, lost jobs, and even businesses. We’ve seen those we love struggle with loneliness, mental illness and addiction. We’ve had to hold drive-by funerals.
Over half a million American lives lost. Incomprehensible. 529,000 people nationwide, the vast majority of whom took their last breaths alone. And in just the time it took to write this, 1,000 more American lives lost. The overwhelming weight of this is almost too much too bear. I know so many of us are hurting, mourning in isolation. We’ve battled this still-mysterious virus – some with extreme symptoms – and some still experience unresolved symptoms day after day. We’ve faced complete and utter exhaustion from essential jobs, or from unexpected childcare and homeschooling. We’ve lost the jobs that kept the lights on and food on the table.
Most of us have wondered: “how are we going to get through this?”
For many in our community, that answer was with the help of the MLK.
For everyone’s safety last March 13th, I dismissed our dedicated volunteers, closed our Preschool and After School, and stopped accepting food donations, despite the growing demand for food. One year ago as our community shut down, families immediately turned to the MLK. The air was heavy with the weight of layoffs, unemployment, suddenly being without childcare, the uncertainty of it all. That day, we pivoted our food pantry from in-person visits to bagged distribution of non-perishables, toiletries, milk, meat, eggs, fruits & veggies, and yes – even toilet paper – to anyone who needed it; brown bags of hope so food was one less thing to worry about. That very first day, we met families who had never used the Center’s services before. In the first 10 days, we served over 200 new clients.
Our Breakfast program in normal times serves the most vulnerable in our community, many of whom face homelessness. Faced with the inability to gather to serve a meal, we quickly moved to a bagged Breakfast distribution every day, complete with freshly brewed hot coffee, bagged breakfast, lunch and a snack and even toiletries.
Pre-COVID, most of the food we distributed was donated: 65% was donated, while we purchased the remaining 35%. But last year, the ratio flipped. We purchased 65% of our pantry’s food while only 35% was donated. Thanks to an outpouring of support from people like you, we had the resources to offer food every 14 days to those in need.
Our Mobile Food Pantry brought food into neighborhoods in Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, Tiverton, and Jamestown, where folks can’t get to the Center but needed the help of food every 14 days. Our Food 2 Friends program was a crucial lifeline, bringing groceries to the most vulnerable homebound people.
When I think back to those early days of the pandemic, I think of the faces of the people we helped, because our community rallied in support of the MLK. Together, we fed the laid-off restaurant worker who, 3 days after the initial shutdown, turned to the Center to feed his family of 4. We think of the unaccompanied teens who came to the pantry to shop for their families, who brought home 2-weeks’ worth of nutritious food, thanks to you. Together, we caused that sigh of relief from our elderly neighbor when they saw the Mobile Food Pantry truck pull up to their neighborhood. Together, we fed the newly unemployed mother who said, “I am so thankful for the MLK. During these stressful times of trying to figure out how the bills will get paid, I am so thankful to not have to worry about food.”
This video shows what feeding our neighbors amidst a pandemic looked like. Our amazing Education staff remained employed with the Center throughout the pandemic, as they were able to join in the effort of food bag prep.
Those days were long, and somehow, they feel like yesterday but also a lifetime ago. In just 9 weeks, we fed 2,747 people, or 60% of the clients we served in all of the previous year. And, 25% of these clients were first-time clients to the Center.
Spring came and went, bringing new faces to the Center, and deepening the need for those who already turned to the Center for support. In August, when we could finally cautiously reopen our education programs and the food pantry, and welcome back a handful of volunteers, Newport County once again answered the call. Your overwhelming support meant we could provide scholarships to cover nearly 90% of weekly tuition – the hard-hit, working families of our Preschoolers paid only $20 per week for childcare to help them get back to work, and back on their feet. Our full-day Summer Camp program reopened shortly thereafter (with fewer kids) and we were able to distribute more scholarships than we ever had in our history.
Our Grab & Go meals were born out of necessity: Pre-COVID, local churches offered daily meals to anyone in need, but they were unable to do so given the pandemic. Our solution? We hired a local caterer to prepare and serve hearty meals, simultaneously helping a small business open, and feeding our neighbors. Our Grab & Go meals remain a community mainstay: we’re providing 2 free lunch meals to the community per week, plus 1-2 additional meals throughout the month.
The MLK serves as “a bridge between.” In “normal” times, we were the bridge between the two sides of Newport County: the served and underserved. In the past year, the Center has been a bridge connecting our shared but often very different experiences of this crisis. Some who were previously in a place of relative comfort found their situation changed overnight and found themselves on the other side of the bridge and in need of help.
Our bridge has held strong. This year has reinforced everything the Center is, because of we hold together as a community. From generous funders and donors who stepped up in those early days, to those who had a little to spare from their stimulus, to those who donated food when we reopened donations, to those who fundraised and spread the word in whatever way you could – we got here, 365 days later, together, Newport County.
People are getting vaccinated. Restaurants are adding more space for dining. Kids are learning in school. Events are being scheduled for the fall. The light is coming back to our days, and to our lives. Hugs will come back. Hope never left.
I hope you are seeing light at the end of this long and dark road. And if you aren’t, reach out to us. We are here for you.
Because we will never give up hope or stop working towards a better Newport County for everyone.
Because this isn’t my community, or your community. It’s our community.
Because all of us are the MLK.
With hope and love,
Heather Hole Strout, Executive Director
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center – 20 Dr Marcus Wheatland Blvd, Newport, RI 02840