Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.
By 4 p.m. for the last five Fridays boxes containing fresh fruits and vegetables, chicken and eggs and, on occasion, cheese have been loaded into cars lining up an hour or more before a food distribution begins at Washington Heights United Methodist Church.
Volunteers also pass out Ziploc bags filled with hygiene products and grocery bags containing cleaning supplies.
The distribution effort is driven by leaders with RISE (Reintegration to Support and Empower), a nonprofit founded in 2017 by Battle Creek residents Damon Brown and Tim Reese. Reese spent more than 29 years as an educator in inner-city schools before retiring.
The organization’s mission is to support and empower the community’s at-risk youth through twice-weekly sessions that Brown led at the Calhoun Community High School. He also has worked with youth at the Calhoun County Juvenile Home.
There also are plans in place to run a program at Washington Heights United Methodist Church that will include recreational opportunities, counseling, and classes focused on cooking and the trades for anybody in the community, with a particular focus on youth after physical distancing restrictions are lifted.
RISE began a weekly distribution of healthy food that began on April 17
The end goal is to help individuals in the community to realize their potential by using life-altering strategies that address their social and emotional well-being.
“We’re dealing with individuals who have been through trauma and adverse childhood experiences,” Brown says.
Before the onset of the pandemic, RISE had a team that offered counseling as part of a behavioral health initiative available to all community residents, that for the time being will focus especially African Americans who are employed as frontline and essential workers during the pandemic.
“Within the next two weeks we’ll be doing virtual counseling,” Brown says. “We are tapping back into what we were originally focusing on, to provide resources and support to youth and individuals who have been through trauma and experienced adverse childhood experiences.”
When schools in Battle Creek closed to comply with state mandates to address the coronavirus pandemic, Brown says his organization saw a more pressing need in the city’s African American community and pivoted from their work with youth to meet that need.
“When this pandemic hit the world was put on pause,” Brown says. “One thing that didn’t pause was people needing to eat. At the end of the day, our organization is about helping people through traumatic times. We saw a need in the community and we wanted to help. We asked, ‘What is the best thing to do for people?'”
The answer – a weekly distribution of healthy food that began on April 17 to fill a void that has been amplified by the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
Like so many of the organized volunteer efforts started by residents to address various pandemic-related needs, the food distribution began informally when L.E. Johnson, with the Southwestern Michigan Urban League and the African American Collaborative, contacted Brown to say he had 16 gallons of milk and wanted to know if he knew anyone who would want the milk.
Brown’s response, “There are always people in need in Washington Heights, the city’s most impoverished community.”
A few days later, Johnson told Brown he had turkeys and produce. “I thought, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I know there are people in need around here,” says Brown, who lives in Washington Heights.
Kyra Wallace, President and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League, delivered 19 turkeys to Brown’s home. He put out the word on his social media and within two hours the turkeys that had been stored in his deep freezer were gone.
This informal outreach birthed the food distribution program that has twice received funding from the United Way of the Battle Creek Kalamazoo Region’s Disaster Relief Fund.
Nakia Baylis, Director of Data & Equitable Systems with UWBKR, says RISE is a trusted source to the community they serve (Washington Heights/Northside of BC), where there are disproportionate impacts magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We strategically invest where there's the most need. It is our philanthropic responsibility to get necessary resources and supports to community members that need it quickly, so funding the sources of trust in the most impacted communities is imperative,” Baylis says. “Often, these sources are grassroots or historically underfunded People-of-Color led organizations. Funding RISE and organizations like RISE is one way we're being intentional about doing just that.”
The UWBCK first connected with RISE last fall, when they applied as part of the United Way’s strategic grant process. Baylis says RISE was invited to join their Catalyzing Community Giving (CCG) grant program, which is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and they joined that effort at the beginning of 2020.
As part of the CCG project, RISE has received regular technical assistance, professional development tools from the Harwood Institute, been introduced to the United Way network so they're better able to collaborate with other community partners, and received peer support from other people-of-color (POC) led organizations.
Baylis says organizations like RISE are critically important because they have “reach and relationships many of us don't. They deeply understand and are intimately connected to people who need resources and supports due to systemic barriers keeping them from thriving. United Way strives to see every member of our community thriving, contributing, connecting, and helping the next. We show through our actions that equitable, trust-based grantmaking is possible and can be profoundly successful.”
The United Way funds have been used to purchase fresh food from Sprout that is in turn packed each week into boxes that make their way into the hands of people who most need it.
When the pandemic hit and businesses and organizations began shutting down, Sprout received several large donations of food from Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Food Innovation Center and a large local company that Sprout has an ongoing relationship with.
“They needed to move the food they had fast,” says Dana Edwards, Sprout’s Food Hub Manager. “We knew that the African American community is more vulnerable to COVID-19 in multiple ways and we started thinking about how we could get food into the hands of the community.”
Edwards reached out to Johnson who made those initial deliveries to Brown. He wanted to grow and continue the food distribution and asked Edwards if Sprout would be willing to continue supplying the food.
To fill orders from regular customers, RISE purchases the food at cost from Sprout which continues to get food from suppliers, including local farms and a Detroit-based produce supplier. Sprout customers also have the option of making financial donations to address food insecurity via Sprout’s website
which translates into additional food to fill the RISE boxes.
Edwards, who worked in public education for 12 years, including five years at Calhoun Community High School, prior to joining Sprout a little over a year ago, says, “This is not the first time I’ve seen families facing food instability and food insecurity. I’m grateful to be able to support Damon’s work because they’re the ones on front lines. I’m just purchasing the food and passing it on.
“I couldn’t not do it.”
In the midst of a disaster, the United Way's Baylis says, “It's important to deploy resources quickly. At the same time, we want to ensure we're being good stewards of donor dollars.”
Through the Disaster Relief Fund, she says the UWBKR is funding viable sources of support that have a well-developed plan to deploy essential needs to those who need it most. Funded partners sign an agreement that lays out what they’re accountable for based on the goals of the Disaster Relief Fund. Disaster Relief Fund dollars are directed to nonprofit organizations for use that may include direct services related to COVID-19, or coordination of relief efforts to streamline and accelerate and sustain the response.
This has been hugely successful with all of the Disaster Relief Fund funded community partners, Baylis says. “They are all networking with one another effectively. RISE, for example, has hosted Rep. Haadsma in giving out boxes of healthy food in collaboration with Sprout. They've also been networking with CareWell
around providing seniors with boxes of healthy food, hygiene supplies, and cleaning supplies.”
Brown says a team of volunteers makes weekly deliveries to 19 seniors and individuals with disabilities. The organization also provides rental and utility assistance to individuals.
“RISE has been a phenomenal community partner through this pandemic and fully transparent with what they're doing and how they're doing it,” Baylis says.
Brown says it was an intentional decision on his organization’s part to work with Sprout because there are a number of underlying health issues impacting the African American community and access to fresh, healthy food is one way to mitigate those issues. RISE also has an account with the Southwest Michigan Food Bank which has provided food products to fill boxes.
In addition to food boxes, RISE also has distributed more than 100 survivalist style backpacks at locations such as Full Blast and the former K-Mart building for men and women. They are filled with personal hygiene items, fleece blankets, socks, insect repellent, and rain ponchos.
Jacqueline Patrick-James, a RISE Leadership team member who has worked for many years in the nonprofit sector, says the COVID-19 pandemic pushed RISE into a different direction, but one that is part of its overall mission to address the needs of individuals through a holistic approach.
“People are in crisis and we’ve never done this for people who have never experienced this before,” Patrick-James says. “We’re a proud people and we don’t like to ask for help, but when things are available and easily accessible and people are friendly in the way they help—it’s just a nice fit."
But the level of demand has been an eye-opener for everyone involved in the weekly distribution which has been advertised on Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m. Volunteers take information from those getting boxes to give RISE a good idea of where they come from and what brought them there.
“What we’re seeing is cars already lining up in front of the church at 1:25 p.m.,” Brown says. “We have not made it to 4 p.m. yet. Last week, we had 95 boxes and we ran out by 3:49 p.m.”
One of the saddest sights for Brown and other volunteers is people who continue to linger after the food is gone.
“This is telling me that this pandemic is affecting us way deeper than what we see on the surface right now,” Brown says. “This is affecting all of us, but when you look at the African American community, it's affecting us in more profound ways.
“I’m seeing a bunch of people who are unemployed or underemployed due to COVID-19 and people are scared.”