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Groups partner with schools to feed the needy

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This story starts at the end, because the beginning and the middle really don’t matter, even at the end of a very long morning.

It ends with smiling kids lugging heavy plastic and paper bags of food and drink back to their apartments, trailers and houses.

It ends with them knowing they’ve got something to eat for the next couple of days — some cereal and milk for breakfast and a sandwich and fruit cup for lunch.

The kids don’t know that lunch room workers have been working at a nearby school cafeteria since 7 a.m. to assemble their meals. They don’t understand that while the school system has resources to make breakfast and lunch possible, it doesn’t have the resources to go door-to-door distributing food. The children don’t notice — or question — how it is that those Enterprise City Schools lunches are loaded by volunteers into Coffee County vans and delivered to their apartment complex or trailer court or church.

What they grasp very clearly is it’s lunch time when the van pulls onto the apartment drive and driver Michael Brooks starts blowing the horn to “Jingle Bells.”

So they smile and come running.

“They get so excited,” Coffee County Family Services Director Judy Crowley said, adding the importance of her agency’s involvement goes beyond just the food. “Handing a kid a meal is a great thing, but it gives them a connection to school that they don’t have right now.

“It’s been really interesting at Dixie Drive. The school counselor at Harrand Creek Elementary has been there most days to hand out food. The children are so excited to see her. She’s excited to see them. Of course they want to all run up and hug her. They can’t do that right now, of course. But keeping kids connected is important. They’re pretty much adrift right now, too.”

Kathryn Connors is that counselor.

“I hated to tell them I couldn’t give them any hugs right now, but when we return to school the virus will be not too bad and I can give them all the hugs they want,” Connors said. “I needed to do this for me, as well, and it felt a little back to normal seeing my babies.”

Before last Wednesday morning, I hadn’t seen this part of Enterprise. I had been close. Two blocks in one direction is Rucker Boulevard. Two blocks in the other direction are nice homes on big lots in a quiet, almost idyllic neighborhood.

I wanted to follow up on the Summer Feeding Program and how it’s reaching more children with help from several public-private partners like Coffee County Family Services and Hand Up Enterprise, along with some area churches.

“They’re a conduit between us and the community and they’re able to reach some areas that we’re not able to reach from a resource standpoint,” Enterprise City Schools Superintendent Greg Faught said last week.

“That’s not something you can wave a wand and make happen. There’s a process and it takes a couple weeks to do. We’re limited in the number of sites that we can have because we have to have the resources to actually prepare the lunches. So we’re limited in that way. They were able to help and it’s worked out well.”

Crowley credited Faught for his willingness to expand the program’s scope. A number of people — governmental workers, private sector leaders and other volunteers — got involved to get the meals to needy children. Enterprise City Council member Sonya Rich and Enterprise City School Board vice president Rod Caldwell were very involved.

“The superintendent really worked hard with us to help us become a feeding site,” Crowley said during a porch-swing interview in front of the CCFS office on West Brunson. “That doesn’t mean we’re doing it here.

“Sonya recruited three churches to be home bases — Union Grove, Johns Chapel and St. Beulah,” Crowley said. “I assigned a staff member at each of those places.

“Families can either come there or we’re going in the neighborhoods around those churches. The pastors and the staff are helping us with that. We have Dixie Drive and Apache Drive, as well, where there are a tremendous amount of children who are unfed.

“Jennifer Nichols and Hand Up Enterprise is helping with Colony Drive. The school system found Faith Baptist Church that’s located near Martin Trailer Court. They’re feeding another couple groups, as well.”

Crowley said Shana Demby, the Executive Director of the Enterprise Housing Authority, was eager to feed the children in her public housing areas.

“Instead of having a couple drive-through locations, we’ve got some of the poorest neighborhoods in town covered — but not all of them,” Crowley said. “We still have kids who can’t get to the feeding areas, but we’re going to do what we can do.”

Crowley easily could have examined the problem, looked at her staff of five full-time and two part-time workers and passed on getting involved.

“Our mission is not to feed kids. We teach families. We’re parent educators. That’s what we do primarily. We have a wide, wide range of parenting subjects — fatherhood, home visits, pregnant teens,” she said.

Anyone who has met her, however, knows getting involved is in her DNA.

“Our board allows us to be very flexible, so when a need arises like this one, they expect us to get involved and encourage us to get involved and advocate for kids,” Crowley said.

Rich Hollingsworth Jr. is the president of the board of directors at CCFS. He is constantly “amazed” at the work Crowley and her staff do.

“They’re going above the call of duty to see that some young ’uns that might otherwise go hungry don’t,” Hollingsworth said. “They’ve always got something going on that’s doing for somebody that society might not recognize.

“They do it for the least of us and often they do it without so much as a thank you.”

It didn’t take long for Crowley to grasp the size of the program.

“All the meals are prepared in school lunch rooms and we have a variety of pickup locations — Holly Hill, Old Coppinville, Hillcrest, several other schools,” she said. “The nutrition staff prepares these and bags them. They have a cold bag and a hot bag.

“They have to follow so many regulations — they have to have a certain amount of protein, vegetables, fruit. They cover all those bases, even in two bags of food. A great big plastic bag has lots of milk, lots of juice. They have stringent rules they have to follow. There’s no way we could do this.

“It has to be a public-private partnership. Citizens have to jump in. I don’t think anybody needs to expect the school system or anybody else to do it all. It’s really important when we see a need to jump in.”

Crowley said both sides have their own strengths they bring to the table.

“The schools have the expertise, they have the kitchens, they have those facilities that we don’t have,” she said. “What I have is willing volunteers. This is a really important need to fill. Hungry kids don’t learn anything. If we’re expecting them to continue to learn and grow during this time that’s so unusual for all of us, then they have to be fed.”

The sheer volume of food that moves out of those schools kitchens on Monday and Wednesday mornings was astonishing. As a first-timer, it was a learning experience to see Holly Hill’s output. Gigantic — and heavy — tote-like tubs were loaded.

“I understand they’re accustomed to doing this every day and putting it on the lunch room line — but this is a whole different animal,” Crowley said. “There’s no way any agency can do what they school does.

“They have all the right tools to provide these meals and we have all the right tools to find the people who need them. That’s why it is such a great partnership.”

Crowley quickly found out she needed transportation to deliver the lunches.

“We’ve got some SUVs and some pickup trucks, that sort of thing, but on Monday we’re giving each child two breakfasts and two lunches. On Wednesday we’re giving them three lunches and three breakfasts. And this was for about 750 children per day,” Crowley said.

She called Coffee County Administrator Rod Morgan, who agreed to help with the distribution. He sent two county vans and Michael Brooks to drive one of them.

“Rod and the County Commission have been spectacular in all of this. The containers weigh 100 pounds each, at least. We’re strong women, but we had a struggle getting them off the carts and into the vans,” Crowley said. “The county has turned double back flips for us to get this done.”

On this Wednesday morning, Coffee County Family Services will pick up at Holly Hill and take meals for about 250 children on Dixie Drive and Apache Drive. They are feeding for the rest of the week, meaning three breakfasts and three lunches are distributed for each child — so that’s 1,500 meals that are taken to the apartment complexes there.

“That’s not including what Faith Baptist Church does. They do a tremendous job of taking meals to Martin Trailer Court in Dale and several other places,” Crowley said.

The first pickups start around 10:30 a.m. at Holly Hill. Two Coffee County vans back into the loading area just outside of the cafeteria. On this day, Morgan himself helps load those heavy totes into the vans and some overflow into an SUV.

The County Administrator mentions approximately 327 times in the next hour that he’s only there to feed kids.

“If we can assist with that, we’ll do it,” Morgan said.

Michael Brooks, who worked in the Enterprise City Schools system for 20 years before working for Coffee County, helps load the vans with Morgan and slips into the driver’s seat in one of the vans.

“It’s a joy to help,” Brooks said.

The first stop is 100 Dixie. Two laps around the complex with Brooks blaring the horn. I told him he needed ice cream truck music instead.

Due to COVID-19, it’s not like they can drop the food and go.

“It’s complicated by the fact that we have to protect our staff and our volunteers,” Crowley said. “We did some training about how to protect themselves, how to sanitize things, how to keep their mask and gloves on, how to keep their distance. The things they handle like the containers are sanitized with bleach. You have to train people who are not clinical to protect themselves.

“Because the kids are so excited, it’s a little bit tough. We have a long piece of vinyl tablecloth and take the bags of meals out and put them on this huge pink tablecloth. Some of those kids go the curb and pour the cereal out and start eating. They’re so excited. It’s a tremendous service.”

It grabs at your heart when you see a 6-year-old boy carry his 2-year-old sister down the steps of their second-story apartment so they can pick up their breakfast and lunches.

Then it’s on to apartment complexes on Apache. The number of kids is eye-opening, as is the condition of some of the parking lots, which look like they’ve been shelled by mortar rounds recently.

Crowley notices a larger family with at least four kids who picked up lunches for the first time. The need is evident. She said the busiest church location is Johns Chapel, where the pastor called and increased his meal count. Jennifer Nichols’ Hand Up Enterprise group did the same at Colony Drive, where she’s handing out 65 meals.

“That’s a lot. They’re very practiced at giving out food and they know the neighborhoods just like us,” she said. “It’s a delight to work with people who know what to do. We’re just a little agency. I don’t see that we could increase any more than what we’re doing right now.”

Crowley’s smile fades a bit as she thinks about what is coming.

Coffee County Family Services is about to get back to its normal functions. It was able to get involved because the COVID-19 pandemic largely limited their routine.

“We will start our home visits, our classes back in June,” she said. “This piece of the feeding program runs through May, then I think it becomes the summer feeding program.

“We’ve been asked by the school system to continue feeding for the summer, but we really are in a quandary about how we can do it. I’ve been talking to Jennifer Nichols about it. … I don’t know what to do. I’m torn up about this.”

It may be left to a service group or club to get involved, or several of them take a day of the week. The schools are planning to deliver breakfast and lunch, twice a day, Monday through Friday. That would be a huge time commitment.

“I’m talking about combining the lunch and breakfast meal like it is now, except it would be five days a week rather than two days a week. So it would be once a day, one delivery,” Crowley said. “We couldn’t cover all the areas we cover now. I’ve spoken with Shana, who is totally amazing and is the Executive Director of the Enterprise Housing Authority.”

It’s a problem Crowley won’t be able to fix on her own. But it is one she’s determined to fix.

“I think Dixie and Apache are the perfect example of how kids respond when you show up with food,” she said. “The fact is, it’s never wrong to feed children.”

This is bothering her because she knows what she’s doing is important. The expression on her face indicates that 90-minute window of meal distribution is about her favorite part of the day.

Looking back at it, wondering how something so heartbreaking could also be so uplifting, I realize it was the best part of my day, too.

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