Volunteers and workers for the I Believe in Me and City Youth Matrix nonprofits were packing up their food distribution site at the Hickory Hills apartments Friday on Key Parkway when 15-year-old Lesly Nolasco ran up to the tables.
“Are you done for today?” she asked, her voice muffled by a homemade cloth mask similar to those worn by many of the workers.
“No, you’re good, come on over here, we’ll get you set up with a box,” a man told her as two volunteers rushed to retrieve some food from one of the pickup trucks.
Having been out of school since March 13 due to emergency actions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Nolasco is in a bit of a different situation than some of her classmates. Her mother has not been able to work for close to three weeks and, while her mother told her she expects to be able to return to work soon, it will likely be with reduced hours, Nolasco said. While her family is managing so far, with expenses tightening, Nolasco’s family has felt the weight of the crisis more than some others.
“A lot of people right now, they don’t have work, they don’t have money to eat or buy food because they’re not working, so, like, this help is good for all the people who live here,” Nolasco said, explaining how, when she had walked past the distribution site earlier, there was a line of residents stretching back several yards down the sidewalk.
The community food drop-offs were the result of an effort by I Believe in Me, a youth development mentorship program run by Aje Hill, who began collecting food and other snacks for the children in his program to help keep them healthy enough to make the best of the distance learning program rolled out by Frederick County Public Schools to continue classes online.
“I know that online learning will be difficult for some of our kids, because they don’t have the food, the necessary resources, the nutrition to end up learning ... so we started to implement something called a hope box,” Hill said, explaining how the first boxes simply consisted of mostly healthy snacks like fruits, granola bars and crackers, as well as other snacks like noodles and Pop-Tarts.
As Hill’s contacts in the food industry grew, he and Aaron Vetter, an FCPS teacher who runs another nonprofit, the City Youth Matrix, were able to offer even more food, such as meats, milk and bread. Eventually, the distribution expanded to the bi-weekly food distribution at two different sites in the city. At 4 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays, the nonprofits hand out food boxes at Hickory Hills before making another drop-off at Mullinix Park at 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, I Believe in Me, along with members of Frederick’s faith community, began working to expand City Youth Matrix’s own project to distribute activity boxes of balls, board games, art supplies and educational games to children of lower income families as defined by the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) guidelines developed by the United Way.
“What kids and families are missing is the extracurriculars, the specials [like] art, music, athletics, P.E., STEM opportunities and then the family engagement,” Vetter explained. “So I said, ‘Aje? Let’s do it. You’ve got food, we’ll take the activity kits [and] we’re going to just listen to each other,’ ... it’s been beautiful.”
By last week, the nonprofit partnership was receiving not only funds but also food donations from a number of different backers, including the Community Foundation of Frederick County, the United Way and the Delaplaine Foundation, to name a few. The groups are also benefiting from individuals with contacts and volunteer work, including Brad Young, the president of the Frederick County Board of Education.
Speaking through a cloth mask at the Hickory Hills distribution site Friday, Young said he had been working with Hill even before the crisis and was happy to help when he heard what Hill and Vetter were planning. For example, when Hill secured a truckload of food from a distribution center Monday, Young called Scott Brunk, who runs the FoodPRO restaurant supply business downtown, who lent some freezer space to keep the food until Friday.
“These guys, Aaron and Aje and these folks, they’re doing a great job, so it’s my job just to help them, help with connections and help get them, you know, when we need a truck or we need workers, I’ve got connections with people and funders,” Young said.
Volunteers from the education community, religious organizations and others have all stepped up to help City Youth Matrix and I Believe in Me expand their goals, expressing a common pledge to help those who are in need.
“What we’re doing today, being givers, the next day we could be receivers,” said Darryl Whiten, another volunteer at the Hickory Hills site who coached a high school boys basketball team before the pandemic hit and sporting events were cancelled. “You never know what can happen from one day to the next, so you need to be there for people.”