Community food drives are a success with the YMCA behind the wheel

The YMCA is known for its beautiful swimming pools, its stellar basketball courts, and an excellent fitness facility. What most may not know is just how charitable and involved with the community the YMCA of the Blue Water Area actually is.

Most are familiar with Marvel's Avengers, the pop culture phenomenon made up of a team of super heroes that save the day from space villains. They’re quite capable on their own, but when they come together they can face and complete a task none of them could do alone.

The team at the YMCA in Port Huron are superheroes in their own right. Although they aren't fighting space aliens, they are helping the community by providing local families with food for the holidays.

Every team needs a great leader, and Denise Brooks, president and CEO of the YMCA of the Blue Water Area for the past 12 years, is a fine example of that. One in a million. That's how her leadership has been described by those close to her. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down local businesses and unemployment began to climb, the YMCA stepped in to provide for the community with their participation in the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).

The CACFP is a “federal program that provides reimbursements for nutritious meals and snacks to eligible children and adults who are enrolled for care at participating child care centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers,” as explained by the U.S Department of Agriculture.

“In talking with other Y’s that have been doing food drives for a while, we were able to learn a lot,” says Brooks.

Brooks was responsible for acquiring the grants and funding needed to to make the food distribution a success. Partnering with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan and Walmart, the YMCA receives food from supermarket chains such as Aldi, Meijer, and GFS. The program caters to those in the Port Huron area and provides families with healthy and nutritious meals during these uncertain times in our economy.

Anyone can qualify as there are no applications or prerequisites. The program is meant to fill in the gaps that other local charities just don't have the resources to provide.

“Whatever we can do and however creative we can be about it, we'll give it a try,” says Brooks. The YMCA has given away 250,000 lbs. of food so far through the program.

Coordinating a plan on such a large scale has to be done by someone. Michelle Johnson is that someone.

Johnson, the YMCA’s social responsibility business office coordinator and volunteer manager, was born and raised in Port Huron has been in the position for two years since leaving her career in law enforcement back in 2018. Her driving force for working with the community is the passion she has to fill people with joy and smiles.

“The YMCA was founded on volunteers many, many, many moons ago, and what we're trying to do is we’re trying to bring that back,” says Johnson. “My number one priority, […] my biggest one is my volunteers — the volunteer program.”

Johnson is responsible for handling all of the volunteers and documentation when it comes to the food distribution. When she’s not in the office, Johnson, being a self-described people person, can be found outside going up and down the line asking how many families are picking up food, and has even formed personal relationships with most of the beneficiaries of the program.

“Since this started I actually have personal relationships with most of these people I know by name. I know how many families they are picking up for. […] I give their dogs treats. It's huge for me,” Johnson says.

Johnson’s goal for the program is to have enough resources and manpower to serve more people in all aspects of life.

When it comes to resources and manpower, the team at the YMCA can always count on Marika Beecherl. Beecherl is originally from Latvia and moved to the U.S. with her husband Daniel Beecherl, from London, England, six years ago.

Marika, who started as a member at the Y in 2015, is now the senior director of the facilities, IT, and food programs. Her responsibilities include everything from making sure the facility is clean to repairs and maintenance — which she often does herself depending on the complexity of the project.

Although Marika is a jack-of-all-trades, her passion lies in working with the volunteers and helping to keep everything running smoothly so that the needs of the community can be met. “The statistics prior to the pandemic was that one in seven kids were going to bed not knowing where they're going to get their next meal. With the pandemic, it's one in four kids,” says Beecherl.

Meals are served to the virtual learning children at 11:30 a.m. with a snack at 3:15 p.m. daily. Grab and Go meals are available on Tuesdays from 3 to 5 p.m. To qualify, you must be 18 or younger. It’s recommended to call ahead to the YMCA to be put on the list for pick-up.

With all of these meals being provided there has to be busy volunteers and staff to facilitate the prep and cooking. Marika’s husband Daniel is one of the many volunteers who dedicate their time and energy to a cause bigger than themselves.

Daniel has been volunteering his time as a chef at the YMCA, as well as the Mid City Nutrition Program, since March of this year.

“I do it to give back to the community,” he says.

Although they may or may not hold prestigious titles or get much recognition, the volunteers are essentially the backbone of the operation doing the heavy lifting — literally. They load boxes with food as well as load the vehicles that come to the food distribution drive.

“The volunteers are vital to our success and without them, it couldn't be done,” says Marika.

So, although the staff and volunteers at the YMCA may not be superheroes fighting super villains from another galaxy, they are fighting hunger and for the well-being of their community.

The food distribution drives are typically held twice per month with the next being Tuesday, Dec. 29, Wednesday, Jan. 13, and Wednesday, Jan. 27. For more details and information contact the YMCA of the Blue Water Area.
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