Under the shade of his wide-brimmed hat, Darryl Whiten motioned vehicles forward in the food distribution line outside the former Frederick Towne Mall on Monday.

Volunteers connected through the local nonprofit I Believe In Me loaded cars with donations as Whiten high-fived and joked with the drivers. In the past 15 months, he’s tried to bring a positive energy to the weekly drive-thru food drops. He wants to see people leave the line of cars better than when they entered.

“We’ve had people come in here literally in tears, saying this is the first set of groceries they’ve had all week,” said Whiten, who coaches boys basketball at Tuscarora High School.

After more than a year of distributing meals to 94,000 people in response to the pandemic, I Believe In Me is shifting its focus from drive-thru food distributions to youth programs, which has been its mission since the beginning.

“Our focus, our mission is youth empowerment, and now more than ever, our youth need rehabilitation, people to help heal the wounds of COVID-19,” I Believe In Me Executive Director Aje Hill said.

Next Monday, June 28 at 3 p.m., is the last scheduled food drop at the mall by U.S. 40, but the nonprofit will continue to connect those in need to food resources. In recent weeks, it has been handing out flyers in English and Spanish to let people know where to go for resources in the future. Information about area food drops can be found at therescuemission.org/programs/f-o-o-d.

“As you can see here, the need is still here, so I could never leave these people,” said Hill, with a line of vehicles behind him in the 90-degree heat.

According to Hill, the food distribution will continue through drops at various schools and donations to local churches, sober homes and other organizations.

Hill emphasized the nonprofit will continue to help community members connect to food resources, just not via drive-thru at the former mall. He hopes to take the energy of the drive-thru events and refocus on I Believe In Me’s youth.

But that doesn’t mean it has forgotten the rest of the community.

“We’re not going away,” Hill said. “We’re just trying to encourage people to go back into their employment, economy, get to work ... and getting some of their financial stability back by going back to work, understanding that the vaccine is here, protection is here. Let’s stop being afraid or lazy, or defiant, and get back to work.”

Watching over the youth and adult volunteers from the parking lot, I Believe In Me board chair Erin Roelke stood “in amazement” of all they’ve accomplished. “I’m proud of them,” she said.

Looking to the future, I Believe In Me hopes to find a building that can serve as the organization’s permanent home, Roelke said, which could be the home of future food distribution efforts. The nonprofit currently meets at Damascus Road Community Church.

Hill was quick to commend the scores of volunteers, some of whom have been coming out for months.

I Believe In Me board member Brad Young, also a member of the Frederick County Board of Education, said he hasn’t missed a food distribution in 15 months. Through snow and heat, he’s been volunteering.

“You leave here every Monday with a warm feeling in your heart,” Young said.

The group served 214 families on Monday. Directed by Young, Frederick resident Jacquelyn Bowins made her way through the drive-thru. She’s been to at least six of the food distribution events.

“It has helped me tremendously,” Bowins said.

She lives on a fixed income and has used most of her COVID-19 stimulus money to pay her bills. Bowins found the drive-thru especially convenient because she has a disability. Walkersville High School student Jeet Patel, 15, started volunteering about six months ago. On Monday, he helped distribute canned goods.

“It’s fun to meet new people and [be] giving back to the community,” he said.

Fifteen-year-old Maurlea Long, of Middletown High School, started volunteering in August.

“I just find it important to help people in need because I know that not everybody has the same amount of availability for things as we do,” Long said. “It also gives you a new perspective on how you shouldn’t take what you have for granted and that it’s important to be grateful for what you have and also contribute what you have to other people.”

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Good story. Good people.

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