The Volunteers Feeding 3,500 People a Week
It’s a tall order. 3,500 meal boxes a week. Each filled with enough food for one person for seven days. That’s what the City of Chicago requested from The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) team when the coronavirus hit. And that’s exactly what they’ve been providing – thanks to a tireless team of staff and volunteers.
While the EDS staff has organized an impressive effort for many Christmases now – packing 10,000 food boxes in one week each holiday season – this has been a whole different challenge. Buying large quantities of individually packaged food just when grocery shelves were getting emptier and emptier. Securing thousands of boxes when manufacturing plants were shutting temporarily or shifting what they were producing. Setting up an assembly line in accordance with social distancing guidelines to fill all those boxes. And gathering a team of healthy individuals brave enough to venture out of their homes to ensure that the most vulnerable of their neighbors would not go without food during this crisis.
“This is part of who I am – I help,” said Susan, of Fox River Grove. She and her husband Ed recently signed up for an eight-hour shift at the EDS warehouse in Elk Grove Village, preparing individually packed food items for the next day’s assembly line to fill hundreds of boxes. A social worker in the process of retiring, Susan turned a deaf ear on friends who heard of her plans to volunteer and asked, “What are you doing?!” The couple has an amazing track record of survival; Susan has beat pancreatic cancer and Ed has survived two heart attacks. “Still, we don’t want to push our luck,” he said, holding up his protective gloves and face mask.
“I feel they are taking good precautions here,” said Diane, an Elmhurst resident also volunteering at the EDS warehouse. Diane usually attends – and volunteers – at The Salvation Army’s Norridge Corps Community Center, but they have been limiting the number of volunteers there during the coronavirus to ensure client and volunteer safety in that smaller building. In EDS’s 48,000 square-foot warehouse, social distancing is a bit easier. Still, the staff has been constantly reviewing safety procedures, and making adjustments as necessary, most recently asking volunteers to enter by a door dedicated just for them. As for Diane’s motivation for spending hours on her feet packing food boxes for strangers, “The Lord tells me to,” she said, smiling behind her mask.
Demetrious, a Washington Heights resident who has seen many in his neighborhood lose their jobs during the COVID-19 crisis, is also motivated by his faith. A youth pastor by trade, he says community work is in his blood. While he’s been using Zoom prayer services and Bible studies to stay connected to his youth, Demetrious enjoys the hands-on help he’s been able to give as an Army volunteer. Placing bags of almonds in each food box rolling past him, he talked of his wishes for those who will receive each box, “I hope better times will come for them. And that they’ll stay hopeful and remain in faith.”
Matt Coatar, volunteer coordinator for the Army’s EDS, explains to the volunteers regularly that this effort is a fluid process. “It’s a moment by moment, day by day challenge,” he told a recent group of volunteers. “The supply chain is tight. Things change rapidly. We’re feeding shelters, first responders, those with the virus.” And then he expressed his extreme gratitude for this volunteer workforce. “I appreciate your labor, support, flexibility. And passion. We couldn’t do this without you.”
These words are a bonus to volunteers like Constance, a woman from Aurora who’s been volunteering twice a week at the EDS warehouse. “It’s a great cause and I’m happy to help,” she said. “I hope the recipients of these food boxes are blessed, and that this lets them know that The Salvation Army is always there to help them.”
Learn about all the ways The Salvation Army is responding to the coronavirus – as well as how you can volunteer – at salarmychicago.org/coronavirus.
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For tax purposes: The Salvation Army Metropolitan Division EIN is 36-2167910.