Fierce forces of human nature: Local congregations rise to the occasion

June 8, 2020

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Community leadership calls for more than soliciting donors and volunteers who buy into your vision. Patti Wainger and Dorianne Villani recently passed an overnight crash course on the contact-free fight against local food insecurity. Together with members of their respective congregations from Congregation Beth El and Ohef Sholom Temple, and a core group of military volunteers, everyone learned that getting food to people during a pandemic is extra challenging, essential—and gratifying.

Villani operates the soup kitchen at OST, a decade-long feeding fixture that was shuttered due to COVID-19. Before that time, the delivery of a five-course meal, and haircuts on the side, was standard fare. Inspired to return to serving others safely, Villani created an outdoor grab-and-go lunch stand on Monday, May 24. All food was packaged by volunteers, similar to the contact-free restaurant curbside model.

“I’ve been really blessed with a lot of partnerships and relationships that have grown out of our soup kitchen,” says Villani. “We’ve been fortunate to have the support of over 20 military commands over the years. They are always very eager to be of service, but even more so now. We also have a partnership with Bombas socks which enabled us to give each person two pairs of socks with their lunch package.”

In an interview with WAVY-TV, one of the sailors who volunteered described the energy as infectious. “It’s so true,” says Villani. “People were happy to help in any way, even if it was just spritzing hand sanitizer or guiding people through the lines. My goal is to scale this and do it more often so that people have their safe place when things don’t feel very safe.”

Later that same week, on Friday May 29, Beth El member and community organizer Patti Wainger launched a drive-thru food fest for 240 school families. The Park Place School is a tuition-free, donor-funded school that rents space from Beth El. “There is nothing that the school needs that Beth El doesn’t try to make happen,” says Wainger, a committed volunteer and visionary.

“I’m a food writer and I know food. Before COVID, Mercy Chefs delivered magnificent meals to these children. Breakfast and lunch. Steak, salmon, fresh fruit, and vegetables. Nothing institutional. It was exquisite. When school closed due to COVID, the principal said the students really need a hot meal. People are without jobs and kids are hungry. That’s what they would appreciate.”

Wainger turned ‘How can we make this happen?’ into a drive-thru, hot food delivery popup on Fridays from 3 pm to 5 pm. Beth El member and volunteer Lisa Delevie picked up food. Beth El provided a tent to shade the volunteers, of which there were only 10 for safe distancing. The Shirley Avenue parking lot became the distribution site. With help and donations from Beth El members, CBN, Y-not pizza, Gourmet Gang, Mercy Chefs, and Krispy Kreme,

Wainger got the goods and the attention of World Central Kitchen, a brainchild of chef Jose Andres and Pharrell Williams. World Central Kitchen is on board to sponsor the next five weekly Friday events. “I never thought I would get World Central Kitchen and such an accomplished culinarian as Travis Walker, but then again we never thought a crisis would force us to feed people in this way.”

- Lisa Richmon

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