Food drives and stuffed trucks: CDCs provide holiday season support for Cleveland neighborhoods

The most wonderful time of the year looks a bit different in 2020, but Cleveland’s community development corporations [CDCs] have been operating amid change since March.

Dealing with COVID-19’s difficulties and regulations for nine-plus months prepared CDCs to collect food, toys, and funds differently and more frequently for the food pantries and residents in their neighborhoods this holiday season. That meant online giving, more food distributions than normal, additional partnerships, and other creative solutions to meet growing needs.

“People are more generous around the holidays because the need is more visible, but demand has gone up since the pandemic, exponentially, at all of the pantries,” says Scott Rosenstein, community involvement manager for Tremont West Development Corporation.

That has also been the case for Famicos Foundation, which serves the Glenville, Hough, and St. Clair-Superior neighborhoods. As a result, the organization created a relief request form on its website allowing residents to state their needs. As the holiday season neared, Erica Burnett, director of community building and engagement, and her team noticed that more and more people began requesting toys. That led to the creation of a new holiday toy drive that began Dec. 6 to benefit families within the Famicos footprint.

<span class="content-image-text">Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation Bountiful basement pantry</span>Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation Bountiful basement pantry“We understand our audience,” Burnett says. “We make sure we know who we’re dealing with in the community, but we also continuously engage.”

The team at Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation [BPDC] supported Cleveland City Councilman Brian Kazy’s Stuff the Truck event for Ward 16 and West Park on Dec. 5 by recruiting volunteers and reaching out to schools in the area to identify families who could benefit from the donations. BPDC would do that in any other year, but those efforts usually support a bigger holiday celebration that would feature Santa Claus, craft tables, food, and, inevitably, more in-person contact.

Missions remain the same this holiday season, but CDCs are operating with even more intentionality to meet their communities’ needs this holiday season, which only intensified because of the global pandemic.

“As difficult as this year is, generosity is always appreciated in every season,” says Ian Heisey, community engagement director for BPDC. ”[Events like Stuff the Truck represent] a way of giving back and really promote gratitude. Some are in a little more need than others. It’s a way of just remembering that we’re all a community together and remembering the generosity of the season.”

<span class="content-image-text">Famicos Foundation holiday toy drive</span>Famicos Foundation holiday toy drivePandemic-inspired prep for the holidays
Although Famicos Foundation’s response to the pandemic has prepared staff to bring necessities and holiday cheer to area families, it was the organization’s normal operations that made them ready to deal with COVID-19. The team already had a food distribution and delivery process in place, but 2020’s challenges meant it was time to scale things up a bit.

Burnett’s community engagement staff transitioned itself into the organization’s food distribution and delivery team and also began providing toiletries at food distribution days at the Hough Multi Purpose Center. Distribution days changed from monthly to weekly events after the pandemic’s onset. The organization also hosted two distributions apiece at Willson Elementary School and Patrick Henry School after engaging families to understand their needs.

“We were already doing this work, this wasn’t new to us,” Burnett says. “What changed was the funding that came in from organizations like the Cleveland Foundation and NeighborWorks America to support these efforts. We were easily able to ramp up what we already did and already knew.”

In addition to fulfilling requests, the organization will target areas like Park Village Estates, a low-income development that Famicos owns, for toy drive distribution. Park Village has about 200 children, and the organization has historically collected for Toys for Tots for the development.

As for food, Famicos has one more pre-holiday distribution at the Hough Multi Purpose Center from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Dec. 17, but will continue to honor requests for residents in need. The organization also regularly holds distributions at the Northern Ohio Recovery Association, including a Produce Giveaway from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 18 and its traditional food pantry from 10 a.m. to noon on Dec. 21 in partnership with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

To illustrate the continually growing need for food in the area, Burnett says Famicos now distributes 120 to 150 bags on a weekly basis at each location. Previously, that amount was about 250 bags per month. Partners like the Cleveland Clinic, St. Aloysius-St. Agatha Parish, Antioch Baptist Church, The New Eastside Market, and more have helped the organization make a big impact before and during the holiday season.

“People have been really supportive,” Burnett says. “We’re keeping close contact with partners when we’re not able to get things in a pinch.”

‘Ready to help and respond’
Councilman Kazy is following up his Stuff the Truck event with his annual Ward 16 Toy Giveaway from noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 19 at West Park Academy. BPDC’s work to identify the 200 to 250 children who will receive the toys from these events displayed why the organization is such a valuable partner, Kazy says.

“The importance of having them involved was their relationship with [Cleveland Metropolitan School District],” says Kazy, who has hosted a toy giveaway for 15 years. “Where was I going to find 200 to 250 kids without CMSD [physically] being in school? They have that relationship, so they were able to collaborate a lot easier than I would have been to find the kids.”

<span class="content-image-text">Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation St. Paul AME pantry line</span>Bellaire-Puritas Development Corporation St. Paul AME pantry lineBPDC has been making such connections for the community’s greater good throughout the year. BPDC also supports food pantries at St. Paul AME Church and Blessed Trinity Catholic Church by fundraising and recruiting volunteers to pack cleaning supplies and toiletries into bags and kits to accompany food. COVID Response Grant monies from the Cleveland Foundation provided those essential items.

St. Paul serves about 250 unique households per month, and Blessed Trinity’s pantry, Bountiful Basement, serves a combined 80 households at two different weekly distributions, Heisey says.

BPDC executive director Bryan Gillooly says the pandemic required the organization to be more proactive about finding out what people in the community needed. They discovered that many either faced employment or were concerned about their jobs because they were not deemed essential workers, and their livelihoods and health care would be affected by the decision makers and owners of their workplaces.

To help these individuals, BPDC banded together with St. Paul AME and Blessed Trinity as well as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and Neighborhood Family Practice to form the Community Essential Needs Collective earlier this year. Armed with CARES Act and fundraising dollars, the group has been able to provide food and other essentials while keeping residents up to date on developments around COVID-19 with information from Neighborhood Family Practice and utility assistance and other gap filling with from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“The shift in focus is the need to rely on other organizations and services and seeing how much stronger our neighborhood response can be when we support each other,” Gillooly says. “There’s great synergy in what we do.”

Pantry coordinators in the area are seeing more first-time guests, and, in response, have often expanded the number of days worth of food they provide to a week’s worth of food, compared to three to five days worth of food before the pandemic, Heisey says. A combination of grants and expanded resources from Cuyahoga County and Harvest for Hunger have made that possible.

Heisey says BPDC, its partners, and residents in need are thankful that giving has mostly kept pace with demand. Some of the community’s younger people have donated their time through the West Park Youth Council alongside adults to pack bags of cleaning supplies. He says he has even seen some neighbors set up their own free distribution of various items to make an impact.

“Certainly, we’ve seen more need surface, but we’ve also seen the generosity and response of our neighbors to help their neighbors,” Heisey says. “Through the struggle of this time, we’ve also seen the resilience of our community and people’s willingness to give back and get involved through the pantries and other ways.

“I think it is encouraging to see how people are ready to help and respond in the midst of this craziness.”

<span class="content-image-text">Holmden-Buhrer-Rowley Block Club Holiday Food</span>Holmden-Buhrer-Rowley Block Club Holiday FoodTremont tradition challenges block clubs, provides food for neighbors
With all the changes this year has produced, some in the area serviced by Tremont West were unsure if their annual Holiday Food Drive could take place. The drive is actually a challenge among the community’s block clubs that represent different geographical areas of Tremont. Because each club wants to collect the most non-perishable food items, paper products, and money, the challenge usually relies on plenty of events, door-to-door asks, and in-person dropoffs—all of which ended due to COVID-19.

“This is the period where there’s generally a lot of block clubs hosting holiday parties that have all now been canceled,” Rosenstein says. “There’s a sense of loss of treasured traditions, but people are still able to accept that this [will last] for a limited period in their life.”

Tremont West polled the block club chairs to gauge their thoughts on continuing the challenge in 2020. The results revealed how fond people have become of the challenge in its nearly decade-long existence.

“To a person, everyone enthusiastically said, ‘no, we must keep this going. The need is so great, we’ll figure out ways to work around it,’” Rosenstein says, “and they have.”

This year marks the first time Tremont West added an online donation option to its website for the challenge, allowing residents to stay safe while designating their contributions to the block club that represents them. The clubs have also set up dropoff points within their own areas of Tremont.

Each block club chooses which food pantry its donations will support, such as St. Augustine Catholic Church, Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ, Saint Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church, and others in or near Tremont West’s service area. Rosenstein says the challenge is all about friendly competition, with the grand prize being the ability to issue the challenge the following year. The Auburn-Lincoln Park block club earned that honor for 2020.

<span class="content-image-text">Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ food drive</span>Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ food drive“You get bragging rights for the next year that your block club raised the most,” Rosenstein says. “But we also want to remind people of what the end goal is, and that’s making sure families and individuals in need in our community are getting fed, and we’re supporting the work of these tremendous food pantries that do this work year ‘round.”

The drive consists of two rounds, with the second ending in mid-January. This allows Tremont West and its clubs to get donations to pantries before Christmas while also helping to replenish pantries after the New Year.

As the end of the first round approached in the third week of December, the clubs had already raised $17,616 for this year’s challenge, along with 346 food products. The clubs raised $13,567 through two rounds last year. Rosenstein expects final figures in about one month. The block clubs collectively raised nearly $39,000 and more than 10,000 food items over the past three annual drives.

In addition to the clubs’ individual dropoff points, Rosenstein says people can drop off goods on the covered porches at Tremont West’s office with a note for which block club the donor represents.

“It’s made people more aware, generally,” Rosenstein says of the drive. “It’s a caring community—I know some individuals who now make monthly donations to a food pantry.

“I do remind people that hunger goes on all year, and it’s very visible this year.”

This story is part of FreshWater’s new yearlong series, Community Development Connection, in partnership with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Cleveland Development Advisors and funded in-part by a Google Grant. The series seeks to raise awareness about the work of 29 Community Development Corporations (CDCs) as well as explore the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations, leaders, and residents who are focused on moving their communities forward during a time of unprecedented challenge.

Brandon Baker
Brandon Baker

About the Author: Brandon Baker

Brandon Baker is a freelance journalist who has contributed articles to Freshwater Cleveland since 2014. His work has been featured by Scene, The News-Herald, Patch, EcoWatch and more. By day, he is a full-time research consultant with Burges & Burges Strategists, where he provides communications, messaging, strategic and research support for various public, private, and nonprofit entities in Ohio. In the fall, he enjoys working for the Cleveland Browns Scoreboard Operations team at FirstEnergy Stadium. Brandon is a graduate of The Ohio State University and enjoys traveling, exercising, the arts, volunteering, and spending time with family.