By Amanda Kavars, Grants Manager
The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for Second Harvest’s Neighborhood Van Distribution initiative. Those who could were sparked into action, masked up, and ready and willing to help. Today, an idea born out of reaction is still going strong with the help of dedicated volunteers. They are champions for an initiative that is reaching their neighbors in need right on their doorsteps!
As Second Harvest’s Grants Manager, it’s important for me to understand the impact our organization has. I visited with a Van Distribution partner, Commonway Church, one hot afternoon in August. I met up with Steve and Jan Jones at Clifton-Wallace Park on Charles Ave in Muncie’s Old West End Neighborhood. They’ve been doing a weekly Van Distribution in the park for more than a year. The volunteers, two of whom live right next to the park, have developed a system to get these valuable resources out to those in line quickly. When they start their distribution, they already have a line down the alley and around the corner.
The volunteers have made an effort to establish relationships with everyone in line and notice if someone isn’t there that week. Steve talks to them about fishing or cooking. One lady loves the color blue. “Everything is blue, right down to her car,” they tell me as she leaves.
They discuss how much they like tomatoes, plums, and peppers and share ideas about how they’ll use them. Some are sure to tell us about the other families they’re taking it to, usually a friend or family member someone they know who can’t get a job, or someone they know who’s gotten sick. There is dignity in feeling safe enough in the line to talk about something more than the weather.
A small neighborhood distribution also allows for people to walk up. One woman who walks up says she’s bringing food to someone who lets her sleep on her couch when she needs to. One man has a basket on wheels. Another woman looks like she’s carrying most of what she owns and is wearing multiple layers. She is grateful for the food but wants to know if she can volunteer and help. She seems to feel she needs to earn her bag of fresh produce.
A man on a bike ties bags to his handlebars. The two of them take a rest across the alley from the van on a few cracked plastic chairs and a table just outside the door of a house that looks like it has a lot of sad stories to tell. They’re quick to open up and start eating the tomatoes. Not long after, another gentleman walks through the line and grabs a bag of food, too. He joins them. They seem to know each other, but I sense none of them live there.
After the last car drives off, the volunteers quickly assemble parcels of food and spread out across the neighborhood. I go with Steve and we walk about a block up the street where we meet a family they regularly deliver to. They shake Steve’s hand and takes their box of food. The husband talks about how much he loves fruits and veggies and how he plans to use them, like peppers for pizza toppings. You can tell he’s the culinary mastermind of the household. His wife tells us about her struggle to get a job. Despite her experience in loss prevention before moving to town, Indiana’s different licensing requirements create a barrier.
Steve tells me a story about the drug house on the corner and how one volunteer hates giving them food because he thinks it’s supporting the people who are doing “bad things that just continue to contribute to tearing down the neighborhood.” Steve has to remind them that we don’t get to choose; we just hand out the food.
Once the front door deliveries are made, the volunteers begin to strategize what to do with the small amount left. One volunteer calls to check in on a regular who hasn’t been around for a few weeks healing from his leg amputation. He’s home and would love a little bit but not too much. He usually shares with others in his building, but wasn’t up for delivering to everyone else yet. They’re clear with me that they never bring any of it back to Second Harvest; they can always find a place for it. All the food has a place to go.
After the volunteers leave, I spend about 40 minutes with Susan Dillon. The self-proclaimed “Community Volunteer” explains how she markets the Vans and Tailgates and how she uses Facebook to connect people. A couple who just got out of an addiction program and were starting over. She drove them around so they could be familiar with the resources here but wouldn’t have to navigate the bus system to find them. She took them to Open Door, a community center that provides clothes and other resources, a place that holds addiction meetings, the Corner Pantry for resources, and a couple of other spots. Seven days later they both had a full-time job and one of them had a second job. She believes it’s those kinds of personal contacts and support that help people to keep moving forward.
I walked away from this experience with a whole new perspective on what it can look like to make an impact. These volunteers are beyond invested. They have put in the time and effort it takes to get to know this neighborhood, and those who live in it, so intimately that they know the details of their hunger. The level of service and giving these volunteers have is impressive and admirable. They are community champions, and I hope we do all we can to continue to support them.
If you’re interested in setting up a Neighborhood Van Distribution program in your neighborhood, we’d love to have you! Van Distribution Partners gather volunteers to pick up a van of food and spend about two hours distributing it weekly or bi-weekly. Please reach out to Sunni Matters, our Director of Impact at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, or to get involved.