By Kathryn Sesser-Dorné
The Birmingham Times
What started out as a simple Facebook post asking for donations to provide snacks for students at one Birmingham City School (BCS) System elementary school has grown into something its organizers could have never envisioned.
As the district worked to make the decision about when schools might close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of Avondale Elementary School (AES) parents were thinking about some of their childrens’ classmates and what the lack of daily access to food might mean—and with a few keyboard strokes Feeding Avondale was born.
“Many students don’t have adequate access to healthy food or even three meals a day without free breakfast and lunch from the school,” said Pastor Malinda Weaver, who leads Avondale United Methodist Church (AUMC).
AES serves 500 Birmingham students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. Around 80 percent fall below the national poverty level, and all students receive free lunch and breakfast daily.
Thanks to the generosity of residents of Avondale and beyond, plus the help of AUMC, Feeding Avondale was able to raise $10,000 in just days. Instead of sending small bags of snacks home with students, the group has been able to provide 45 families from the school a bag of groceries each week—and will continue to feed families as long as the money holds out.
“Providing groceries and snacks to these students and their families helps to bridge the gap that’s been opened in the wake of COVID-19 and the cancellation of school,” said Weaver. “My church and the Avondale community have been great in the past about providing resources and support for our schoolchildren when there’s a critical need.”
The initial goal was to help “AES families struggling with food security during this crisis have access to healthy, quality food,” said Amber Pope, president of the Avondale PTA and one of the parents leading the Feeding Avondale effort.
“It’s basically a committed group of parents organizing the sourcing, packaging, and weekly delivery of food,” she added. “We’ve received incredible financial and volunteer support from the community and other churches, allowing us to serve more families for longer.”
For Pope, a former teacher in the Tarrant City Schools system and mother of a kindergartener and second grader, the need hits close to home.
“Having experienced food insecurity in my childhood, I know firsthand the importance of community support.” she said. “As a mom, I don’t want any parent to wonder if their child will have enough to eat.”
For Weaver, making sure people are fed is at the heart of her profession as a pastor.
“God calls me to help the least of these. In this case, hungry students and their families are the least of these. I never want anyone to be hungry,” she said. “On a personal note, my children also attend AES, so the students we’re helping are their friends and classmates.”
Weaver, who has a kindergartener and second grader at the school, added, “These kids should be fed just as much as my kids should be fed.”
Figuring Out the Logistics
Once Feeding Avondale took off, the parents had a short time to figure out how everything would work.
“We’re no stranger to the generosity of the Avondale community, but in light of the urgent needs of our students and their families, financial and food donations poured in immediately,” Pope said. “It really challenged us to dream bigger about what we could do for our families, knowing that we had the community behind us. We haven’t had a single volunteer opportunity go unfilled, and that’s the only way we could have gotten this off the ground.”
In a matter of days, Feeding Avondale established a plan to source food, decided how it would be packed and sorted, and began to let parents know that help was available if they needed it. The first step was to stock up on as much shelf-stable food as they could at a local warehouse store. Then, along with the help of AUMC members, the parents made multiple trips early on.
The church has allowed the group to use its fellowship hall to set up a mini-factory, where brown paper grocery bags are filled with pasta, beans, fruit, snacks, and breakfast items, in addition to other goods donated by the community. Due to social distancing rules, just a handful of people gather throughout the week to bag the groceries, which are ready for pickup before drop-offs begin each Wednesday.
AES draws students from neighborhoods surrounding the school all the way out to Highway 280 by The Summit. Pope, who now serves as a Microsoft Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) Regional Manager in Birmingham, has worked tirelessly to map out the best way to deliver to all of the school’s 45 families spread across the city. The first week’s delivery took several hours, but now, with more volunteers, the route is divided and conquered more efficiently.
“For those who are not part of a vulnerable group and do not live with a person who is vulnerable, volunteering is essential,” Pope said. “Our effort, like most operating now, follows social distancing guidelines and limits interaction between people as much as possible with some protective measures and contactless delivery.”
Addressing the Gaps
Feeding Avondale has become somewhat of a part-time job for some of the parents, who are also juggling their jobs, being teachers to their kids, and enduring the stresses that come with navigating their first pandemic.
“If anything, COVID-19 has brought into plain view the great disparity within our culture and society, from economic resources to affordable health care to availability of healthy food,” Weaver said. “These are all things people on the margins desperately need that aren’t easily accessible to them.”
Members of the group hope that from this crisis will arise a focus on inequalities throughout society and that people will be willing to help each other by finding a way to bridge the gap in provisions throughout our country.
“Figure out ways to do your part through churches or other nonprofits. … Then when the COVID-19 crisis has ended, advocate for those on the bottom of society so that they, too, are afforded the same resources and opportunities you have,” Weaver added.
Pope said, “It’s more important than ever that we reach out to support those who have been laid off, had hours cut, become sick, or have had to take unpaid leave to stay home with their children. Schools serve many vital functions in a community, and when they are closed, we have to all pull together and fill gaps as we are able.”
Distance Learning and Beyond
The decision to close BCS schools left teachers and administrators scrambling to plan how they would best continue to educate their scholars. Since March 13, the school system has worked to launch a distance-learning plan, making pickup and drop-off schoolwork packets available last week at each school, as well as utilizing the online programs students were already familiar with. For some, however, this means a missed opportunity for learning, no matter what plans are in place. So, Feeding Avondale is also working to try to help fill in the gaps that a lack of computers or internet access may create. Last week’s grocery delivery included school supplies provided by Redeemer Community Church, and grade-specific at-home learning packets to help better engage students during this time of distance learning. Other charities have provided fun activities, such as puzzles and coloring books, to send out to the children, as well.
But there is more to be done.
In this time of uncertainty, there are going to be many holes to fill throughout Birmingham, both educationally and financially. Help from the community is going to be crucial.
“Check in with different churches in your area through their social media pages,” Weaver said. “There are several churches right now that are finding ways to help other people while maintaining a safe social distance.”
Having to stay indoors should not deter people from giving their time and efforts to help others in need during the COVID-19 crisis.
“For those who cannot be on the front lines, there’s a lot that people can do from home,” Pope said. “Share volunteer opportunities on social media. Share resources for help with families who may need it, make phone calls, and if you’re able, donate funds.”
An even simpler way to help is to do your part in slowing COVID-19.
“If you don’t have any bandwidth to spare, the most important contribution you can make is to stay home to slow the spread of the worst pandemic in 100 years,” Pope said.
“This crisis does not discriminate—anyone can be impacted economically, and there’s no specified end date,” Pope said. “Feeding Avondale isn’t about charity; it’s about lifting each other up because we are strongest when our community is strong.”
The group doesn’t know how many more weeks it will be able to continue grocery delivery, but as long as funding comes in and food can be found Pope and other volunteers will be out each Wednesday delivering what they can provide to AES students and their families.
“We don’t know how long the pandemic and resulting economic fallout will last, but as long as we can support each other, we will.”
Kathryn Sesser-Dorné is a visual journalist living in Birmingham. As the parent to an Avondale Elementary School first grader, she serves on the PTA board and is part of Feeding Avondale.
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