Sweetwater Mission executive director Brian Hamilton places pre-bagged groceries inside a patron’s vehicle during food distribution “drive-through” at the Austell facility. Hamilton, along with other volunteers and employees, wore protective wear while facilitating the food distribution. Normally patrons are allowed inside the facility to pick out their own food but operations have shifted due to coronavirus. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Atlanta charities stressed, but responsive, during COVID-19 outbreak

Brian Hamilton is executive director of the food pantry Sweetwater Mission, which provides needy families in the Austell area with about a million pounds of food a year.

Now life is even harder for the working poor who are Sweetwater’s clients, threatened by the coronavirus outbreak that has taken away the livelihoods of thousands.

Also under threat: the people, like Hamilton, who serve those clients.

These days, when Hamilton, 70, gets home, he takes off his clothes and his shoes in the garage before heading inside to shower. Though he is healthy so far, he doesn’t want to bring anything with him. “I’m trying to take care of my wife, and also look out for these people,” he said.

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Charity organizations and the volunteers that keep them humming are under pressure. The need for assistance has escalated, while the threat of COVID-19 has made it more difficult to deliver that help. Organizations must not only keep their staff and volunteers healthy, but refrain from becoming carriers and spreading the coronavirus to the people they’re trying to help.

The Atlanta Community Food Bank, for example, engages with perhaps 30,000 volunteers over the course of a year. But last week the food bank sent all its volunteers home. “We’re sad to do this,” said president and CEO Kyle Waide. “But right now we’ve got to minimize our risks of infection.”

Many of those volunteers are retirees, which places them in the “at-risk” category: older Americans, like Hamilton, are more likely to suffer more extreme consequences from the virus.

“How do you protect your own people?” asked Dwight “Ike” Reighard, president and CEO of Cobb County’s MUST Ministries. “That is the thing that keeps me up the most at night.” For that reason MUST has also asked its older volunteers to stay home.

Sweetwater Mission volunteers Katie Mason (left) and Anderson Villamizar (right) prepare canned food items for pickup during the food distribution “drive-through.” ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

MUST operates food pantries and cares for the homeless in Cobb, Cherokee and Marietta. “The vast majority of those MUST is assisting are the working poor,” working hourly jobs, said Reighard. “Right now we’re seeing those jobs evaporate” as restaurants and other parts of the service industry shut down.

One way that MUST has worked to keep its clients and its staff safe is by re-arranging the way food is distributed from its feeding programs. To keep interactions to a minimum, the MUST staff is packing two-weeks worth of food in boxes to hand out to families of at-risk students, who otherwise would have been fed through the free and reduced lunch programs in school.

Those exchanges happen outdoors, with little contact, said a croaky Kaye Cagle, vice president of marketing and communications at MUST, who is staying home with a case of bronchitis. “All they have to do is roll down the window and take a box,” she said. “It definitely reduces the risk.”

Sweetwater is doing the same thing, providing food to its clients who drive through in their cars, rather than letting them “shop” in the pantry.

Similarly, MUST has moved the tables for the Loaves and Fishes Community Kitchen outdoors, to minimize exposure, and closed its four computer labs, where clients look for jobs. “But we continue feeding people, that’s the key,” said Cagle. “We can’t quit when the need gets greater, and quite frankly more expensive. It’s the same as if you’re the nurse in a hospital.”

Charity organizations praise the efforts of local and national leaders to reduce the spread of the coronavirus by limiting social gatherings, although those efforts have had a few unintended consequences. Each year Cobb’s Center for Family Resources stages a gala that also serves as its principal fundraiser. It takes place at the Mansour Conference Center in Marietta, a facility owned by the CFR.

This year’s gala, scheduled for Saturday, March 14, was postponed at the last minute, after government leaders suggested banning gatherings of 250 or more, a number that was later adjusted down to 50. Unfortunately, the center had already bought flowers and food.

The fundraiser usually generates $350,000, but that didn’t happen. Bookings at the Mansour Conference Center also disappeared, which are a significant source of income for the center. “Right now it means we’re in emergency mode,” said president and CEO Melanie Kagan.

Mary Beth Alexander, Sweetwater Mission staffer, receives a client’s information at the Austell facility, which distrubtes about a million pounds of food a year. Alexander wore protective gear to reduce the chances of spreading the coronovirus. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The center provides life skills classes, GED preparatory work, short-term housing assistance and help for families in crisis. Right now they can’t take new cases except those screened by telephone, to reduce contact at the center.

The staff at the center are taking all available precautions to keep themselves and their clients safe, sanitizing the meeting rooms, keeping their hands washed and monitoring the health of those who volunteer. It’s stressful.

“We’re trying to ensure everybody’s safety, comfort, health and sanity,” said Kagan, sniffling from the effects of the recent bloom of pollen. “People are nervous, people are scared. It’s not an operation that can send everybody to work from home. We’re trying to keep everybody as calm as possible.”

Nationally and internationally, the effects can be seen on staff at other helping organizations. The number of staffers seeking “mental wellness” services at the international relief agency CARE has increased, said Patrick O’Donoghue, deputy director of security at the Atlanta-based organization. Many of those workers are in hard-hit areas of Asia and the Middle East. “We’re asking them to stay in position, and possibly work, and work harder, in the weeks ahead.”

Eventually the threat of the coronavirus will be over, said Waide, of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “However the economic impact of this crisis is going to be with us for some time.”

That’s why helping organizations want to help now, while the need is crucial.

“That’s not a burden,” said Reighard. “That’s an opportunity to fulfill our calling to serve our neighbors in need. I’ve just never seen so many neighbors in need at once.”

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