The COVID-19 pandemic caused many problems for lots of people who were never even infected.
The virus and its resulting shutdowns highlighted the weaknesses in this country’s supply chain. All of the sudden, toilet paper, eggs and fresh meats were unavailable at grocery stores for those who could afford to buy them.
Volunteers at St. James Catholic Church in Charles Town started the St. Roch’s Outreach and have worked tirelessly since mid-March, when the shutdowns began, to help bridge the gaps in the supply chain locally, while helping out a variety of people along the way.
Deacon Dave Galvin explained that it all started with some lackluster donation boxes for the local food bank and a fortuitous delivery of produce from Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
“We realized things were starting to change and that we needed to reach out and help people,” Galvin said.
Given the restrictions and the fact that the shutdowns caught nearly everyone off guard, those initial boxes weren’t too impressive.
Allie Enos is the Director of Religious Education at St. James and also serves as the church’s coordinator for its involvement with the Mountaineer Food Bank mobile unit. Enos, who helps with a lot of the outreach programs at St. James, said the situation was tough at first.
“It was really hard for them to put together anything because of the restrictions,” Enos said. “It got better after that.”
Boy, did it ever.
“A few days later, Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races brought over some gorgeous produce,” Galvin said. “Pallets and pallets of gorgeous produce. Beautiful lettuce, fruits, tomatoes and vegetables.”
The volunteers for the St. Roch Outreach then realized that their next mission was to make sure that all of that beautiful produce got into the hands of people who needed it.
With Enos and her connections to the Jefferson County school board, the group was able to locate 250 families in need and delivered the goods.
The number of families in need being served has grown and currently sits at about 400 families of differing sizes anywhere from 2 to 10 people, which means the reach of that portion of the program is anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 people.
Enos had a story that was particularly encouraging.
“We had one family that we were helping,” Enos said. “They called us and told us they were back on their feet and didn’t need the help any more and turned around and donated $500 to the outreach.”
While some families have reached a point where they no longer need the help, Enos estimated that the need is still growing at a clip of 3 to 4 more families a week.
This story, however, encompasses much more than feeding the needy. This group somehow has been able to achieve that and at the same time, put themselves in a position to help even more people. Some had money, but no way of getting products. Some simply needed a break from self-isolation. Others were looking to keep their businesses afloat.
Amazingly enough, these volunteers delivered on all fronts.
As Galvin explained, while the shelves were barren at local grocery stores, businesses that supply goods for local restaurants were filled to the brim after restrictions eliminating dine-in service at restaurants saw those distributor’s orders cut in half. Schenck Foods, of Winchester, Va., and one of the bigger restaurant distributors in the area, was ready to lay off half of its drivers.
“Two things were happening,” Galvin said. “People are losing their jobs and people can’t get stuff. Like for instance, there was a run on toilet paper. All of the retail outlets were out of things and places like Schenck’s, which supplies restaurants, had a plethora of supplies. No one had eggs and no one had toilet paper. Schenck’s had eggs and toilet paper.”
At that point, the St. Roch Outreach volunteers started working out deals with local businesses to buy products, sell them at a modest margin, take that margin and spin it back into helping more needy people in the process.
After bringing Schenck Foods into the fold, the group started reaching out to other companies in the area and region.
“We were buying meat from Crestview Meat Market and produce from Cedar Ridge Hydroponics,” Galvin said. “We went to Orr’s (Farmers Market) and got apples, and we got our canned goods from Hanover Foods in Pa. We got everything we could get locally and then reached out a little further. We got to a point where we were delivering food to these families every 10 days or so.”
While they were making deliveries to families in need and at the same time helping to keep local businesses afloat, the group turned the parking lot of St. James Catholic Church into a swap meet of sorts every Friday night.
It was a perfect blend of commerce, charity and goodwill all rolled into one event each week.
Grace Guiney, a volunteer with St. Roch Outreach, saw a sweet idea in bringing Krumpe’s Do-Nuts, a Hagerstown institution and a local favorite, to the parishioners come to fruition.
“People were just stuck at home and we thought that something nice we could do – being the younger people who were willing to go around and drive – could deliver these donuts to their homes,” Guiney said. “It really got bigger than I’d expected right away. First week, I told Max Krumpe, it would be 10-40 dozen. I know that’s a big variable. I just didn’t know how many to expect, but I think that first week, we sold 60 dozen. That’s pretty much what it stayed at for seven or eight weeks.”
Guiney explained that despite the social distancing concerns, there was a socially satisfying aspect to Friday’s gatherings in the church parking lot.
“We delivered some of them (the donuts,) but many of our parishioners loved coming here, driving around the loop,” Guiney said. “We’d have our donut station and a coffee station. Joan and Joe Coffee, who produce organic alkaline-free cold-brew coffee, set up a station. Sometimes, we sold ice cream and pepperoni rolls.”
Part of those Friday night gatherings included helping people procure the basics that weren’t available anywhere.
The church purchased eggs and toilet paper from Schenck’s for those Friday nights, and helped find a home for quite a bit of meat that otherwise would have been stranded elsewhere.
Sometimes, the volunteers had to source the meat from as far away as Bedford, Pa., where they found a Mennonite-run operation, Fisher’s Country Store, which was also running a restaurant supply business in addition to the store itself.
Fisher’s Country Store had a large cache of 15 pound packs of ground beef during a time when it was next to impossible to find it at the grocery store.
Ana Boné serves as the Director of Communications and as the Director of Marriage and Family life at St. James. Boné, who helped organize meat shipments for the group, explained that timing was everything.
“It really was a matter of hours,” Boné said. “The first night, we sold 138 cases of beef. There was a lack of stock in the stores and then the news came about the packing house shutdowns and the rising prices, that was making it harder for people to get meat. Even if you had a job, it was still difficult to get.”
One night, the volunteers sold and distributed 6,000 pounds of chicken breast.
A spike in the price of chicken breast caused the prices to more than double. The original price on the chicken was $95 for a 40-pound pack and the volunteers for the St. Roch Outreach, not wanting to price anyone out of the meat, decided to take a $20 loss on each pack ($2,000 total loss) and charged only $75 and that they’d have a fundraiser to make up the difference later.
“The supplier got back to me and told me that he’d gotten a better price and decided that he could knock $15 off per case. That saved us roughly $1,500 and we were able to get close to even on that deal,” Galvin said.
Apparently, the positive energy was flowing for this group. In order to keep a supply of fresh produce, they went to Orr’s Farmers Market to procure 25 cases of apples. When the owner of Orr’s found out who was purchasing those apples, the price changed.
“When they found out what we were ordering the apples for, they sold them to us for half price,” Galvin said.
The group has also received similar deals from other businesses, including the rental of a refrigerated truck, from Ryder of Winchester, which made it easier to make deliveries while keeping perishables cool and allowed the group to start its milk giveaways that last week included boxes of cereal.
The group has also made milk deliveries to Wheeling and last week to inner-city Washington D.C.
Good deeds seem to beget more good deeds. The St. Roch Outreach has shown that throughout the whole process, Galvin said.
“It just seems like everything has worked out,” Galvin said. “When we have a need, someone is there to help. Our parishioners have been generous giving and the distributors have been great to work with.”