Last Friday at the Essex Council On Aging on Pickering Street, Annie Cameron, Jodi Woodman, Sara Richards, Dawn Burnham and Tess Leary were on the job preparing bi-weekly meal kits for nearly 60 local families and seniors in need. They’re part of an all-volunteer crew that has come to span donors, school district officials, community groups, and elderly services professionals to help out with food donations during COVID.
That was back in March. Today, they’re still at it, and they’re expecting a challenging winter.
“We thought it would be three months,” said Annie Cameron, a resident of Essex who is also a member of the Manchester Essex Regional School Committee. She said the effort began with the Essex Senior Center staff, which looked at the onset of the pandemic and focused on what they needed to do to take care of those who couldn’t easily get out of their homes.
But when all four schools in the Manchester Essex School District closed, focus expanded to include families. After all, for local families already at the edge, the pandemic made their need more pronounced. And for seniors already isolated, COVID has made them more so.
So the effort began, spontaneously with just a few people doing what they could to gather and distribute food. Then, Joanne Seaman and Donna Smith, school nurses in Manchester and Essex who understand specific families in need joined along with Andrea Locke, the school district’s resource officer. The team of volunteers widened in both towns, many with connections to the school district such as Caroline Weld in Manchester who served on the School Committee for nine years. Kristin Crockett and Tess Leary of the Essex COA helped organize donations community organizations like The Open Door Pantry in Gloucester and Acord Food Pantry in Hamilton to collect food items. These were added to those from private donors, and the network of volunteers organized for assembly and delivery.
Six months later, like clockwork, these volunteers systematically prepare a “bi-weekly basics” bag, which includes chicken, eggs, vegetables, juices, among other grocery items. Families receive debit cards for use at local grocery stores that are paid for by local cash or Venmo donations.
In many cases, said Cameron, these deliveries—especially to the elderly—serve a dual purpose, sustenance and a “wellness check.” In many cases, she said, the food kit delivery is the only visit a senior may get in the day.
The web of giving on Cape Ann comes clearly into view this time of year. Thanksgiving and the holidays give community service a seasonal lens, and a small but effective machine of community groups address a wide spectrum—women, kids, seniors, food needs, social services, mental health. There’s The Open Door and Acord. There’s Senior Care, which delivers meals weekly to the elderly and offers other services, as well as town Councils on Aging. There’s Pathways For Children, Wellspring House, and Action, Inc.
Looking at the holiday season with a pandemic, The Open Door, which serves Cape Ann and six additional North Shore communities, reported it already has experienced a 40 percent increase so far this year over last year’s demand serving 1.71 million meals to 8,287 people in its service area. It’s all, said Executive Director Julie LaFontaine, due to the pandemic, and its disruption.
“Our mission has never been clearer,” she said about the spike in service demand for The Open Door and other community service organizations.
Collaboration continues to be key. Both between volunteers and school district officials in Essex and Manchester, and around Cape Ann. Also, the connection between this small group of volunteers who come together every other week as long as there’s a need and the myriad larger community non-profits with a core mission is to help. Or between local charitable organizations like Rotary Club or the Masons that schedule volunteer time for organizations like The Open Door all year long, not just the holidays.
In the end, Cameron said, it’s a confederation of the little things, that make a big difference. And while the team is technically preparing bags of food basics, what they see they are delivering is a connection to others in the community. That’s important, and it’s part of the way Essex has always operated, rising up in small ways to meet the local need.
“Essex is a little like a stone soup,” said Cameron. “There are bits of kindness where people contribute what they can, and that’s gotten us through. Little acts of kindness. That can really make you get through this awful period of time.”