Local nonprofit Bridging RVA steps in to provide meals to those in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On an overcast Saturday morning, the Extra Space Storage facility on Mall Drive in Bon Air has an unassuming appearance. But under the high-ceilinged arch, two units are open to reveal a sea of brown paper bags full of groceries. To the side are carts stacked with bread and a table, carefully organized with sheets of schedules and driving routes.
Every week, Lee Ann and John Sawyer, the founders of Bridging RVA, along with three masked and gloved volunteers, spend their Saturday loading cars with these supplies and sending them on delivery runs. This is part of their Drop-Knock-Leave program, which brings weekly food and essential supply packages to families in need, without direct contact, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When these cars drive up, we have their route ready for them to pick up. They get their bags, they get a piece of paper, they’re asked the CDC questions to screen for COVID-19, and everybody has masks,” said Lee Ann Sawyer. “They load their car, and they leave with their ten or twelve households to stop at.”
Bridging RVA is a Richmond-based nonprofit aimed at advancing common good in the local community. They run three main initiatives every year: 150 Beds for 150 Kids, Christmas Day Dinner, and Teacher Appreciation Week at Title I Schools. Usually, Teacher Appreciation Week occurs in late March, but when schools shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, it became clear that the events could not continue this year.
With the cancellation of schools came a slew of issues, not the least of which included remote learning and childcare; however, schools are also a platform to reach students who need help. Feed More, another nonprofit working to combat food insecurity, provides students in need with food for the weekend through their Weekend Backpack program. They send nutritious foods home with children on Fridays to ensure they are fed even when they’re not provided with school lunch. But with COVID-19, there were no schools to distribute those backpacks.
“All of a sudden there was no vehicle in Chesterfield County to deliver the weekend bags that the kids would typically take home with them,” recalled Sawyer. “So we said, ‘You know what? We’ll be the vehicle.’”
But as the board of Bridging RVA discussed the program more, they realized that a family who couldn’t provide for a child probably couldn’t provide for anyone else either. As a result, they took it upon themselves to redirect all of the funds and efforts they would have put into Teacher Appreciation Week, and instead mobilized to provide an entire week’s worth of groceries to every family in need, for the duration of the pandemic.
Since they began the Drop-Kock-Leave program on March 19, Bridging RVA has delivered supplies to more than 2,000 families in Chesterfield County. It’s all been possible thanks to their expansive volunteer network. Each Friday morning, three to four volunteers meet to pack the paper bags full of groceries, paying special attention to allergy alerts and other needs.
That evening, all volunteers who signed up for a delivery slot get an email detailing their time window, so no two cars arrive for pickup simultaneously, reducing the number of people who gather at once. When a car pulls up, five people are at the ready to give the driver a route and load the vehicle. After snapping a quick picture, the delivery volunteers are on their way. At each house, volunteers drop the designated bag in front of the door, knock, and leave before the residents open the door, minimizing any potential risk of spreading COVID-19.
Monique Jones is a volunteer for Bridging RVA. When she got an email about the Drop-Knock-Leave program, she immediately signed up, and has been delivering bags every week since. She expressed how important she believes the initiative is, and praised John and Lee Ann Sawyer for their incredible organizational skills. When asked about her favorite part of volunteering, Jones said she appreciates the opportunity to connect with her son, a 21 year old college student who came home when his campus was shut down and now helps her with her route.
“My 21 year old talks to me and we banter back and forth. Sometimes we fuss at each other ‘You didn’t tell me to turn quick enough and now I’ve missed the turn!’ you know?” she said with a laugh. “So it’s actually been a great experience having him in the car with me for those two hours.”
More importantly, she explained that the delivery experience has given her and her son a new perspective.
“I think our first experience was in a neighborhood that was an apartment complex,” Jones recalled. “[My son] was kind of surprised about the conditions of some of these complexes and where people lived. We didn’t even know that some of these areas of Chesterfield County existed. We just had never been in them.”
Gauging the hidden needs of the community and filling in the gaps is what Bridging RVA strives to do. Lee Ann Sawyer explained that they frequently provide for those in need on an individual basis through a “rapid response.” Essentially, anyone — a social worker, school administrator, or community member — who sees a need in the community, however small, can contact a Bridging RVA board member and ask them to help fill the gaps with resources or labor.
“We have a deep well of people with different skills, from physicians to carpenters, and electricians. So we’re not defined by beds, or Christmas Day dinner, or teachers. We can do so many things,” said Sawyer. “Any of our board members can get a call, and we have the freedom to send a text out and say, ‘Hey, I have a need, I want to go for it. Are we all good?’ And we just make it happen that day.”
Above all else, Bridging RVA strives to be adaptive and helpful to the community in whatever capacity their services are needed.
“It’s multiple little acts of kindness,” said Sawyer. “We want to meet people where they are.”
If you’re interested in volunteering or donating, please visit Bridging RVA’s website at http://www.bridgingrva.com/home.
Top Photo: Volunteers with bags packed for the Drop-Knock-Leave program. Via Bridging RVA/Facebook