Covid-19Magazine Exclusive

‘Doing something’ during COVID–19

“Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’” —Matthew 14:16

“Do something” was the command of Salvation Army Founder William Booth when he and his son saw the poor living under London Bridge in the 19th century.

Today, during the COVID-19 shutdown, staff and beneficiaries of the  Syracuse, N.Y., Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) followed Booth’s command. Although they were confined to their centers and couldn’t do much as the pandemic raged, they nonetheless kept busy by providing food for people who lived in the surrounding community.

“We didn’t want to sit around,” said Major Gayle Miga, who leads the ARC along with her husband, Major Robert Miga. “We wanted to do something every day for others.” In the early days of the pandemic, Major Gayle contacted Sysco to get donated food from the global leader in selling, marketing, and distributing food products to customers who prepare meals away from home.

Then the American Dairy Association and New York State Dairy Association came through with donated milk.

“Every week, we ended up with a 53-foot trailer donated by Wegmans and the New York State Dairy Association,” Major Robert said. “It was full of crates of milk.

“We distributed them to several other agencies in the community. We became the hub for The Salvation Army in the Empire State Division.  We moved milk, bread, and other donated foods across the territory.”


A working family

Gayle said the center’s beneficiaries were excited to help pack food boxes.

“Everybody did it,” Gayle said. “We consider everyone at our center a part of our family. They all contributed.”

Robert said he had to make a trip to Massena one day and a few beneficiaries volunteered to tag along.

“We kept them busy. They enjoyed doing something else and giving back to the community.”

Each day, the beneficiaries finished their counseling and work therapy before helping to fill food boxes.

The family store and warehouse are attached to the center. Beneficiaries were able to take shopping carts from the store and move them to the warehouse to make things easier.

“We have one of the larger facilities,” Gayle said. “We actually had our whole property and parking lot that we could turn into anything we needed.

“It was work, but it was fun. We learned that we could make 500 food boxes in about 53 minutes. We started getting really good at it.”

Before the mass distribution of food boxes began, the ARC was receiving so much food the Migas decided to hold a food giveaway in the center’s huge parking lot.

Every Saturday for about four weeks, they gave away bread, milk, yogurts, prepared foods, potato chips, and whatever else Sysco provided.

“Our family at the ARC was able to assist, which helped the folks here,” Gayle said. “Sometimes when people come into a program, they don’t feel like they’re a productive citizen; they’re trying to get their lives together. But anytime a person comes into an ARC, they become productive on the first day.”


Giving back blessings

Gayle said during one giveaway, she noticed a woman beneficiary who was crying. Gayle realized she was actually seeing tears of joy because the woman felt overwhelmed at being able to give back.

“The woman said, ‘The lady I just gave bread and milk to was so thankful. It made me happy that I’m able to do that now in my life; that I’m able to give back.’ Because of what we were able to do, it blessed all of us and made us look at how fortunate we are,” Gayle said.

Robert said the Saturday events became almost like an “open-air meeting” because of the evangelism opportunities. Not all of the people coming for food were Christians, but many would say, “God bless you for what you’re doing.” Robert also engaged some people in conversation.

“We were able to share with them why we do what we do,” he said. “People wanted to listen, too. We even had some people come back later and talk.

“It was interesting how people would come back, week after week, and sometimes they would bring someone else and ask, ‘Can you talk to them?’ It became about touching some lives and sharing the love of Christ. We were able to witness to them and we were grateful for that opportunity.”


For the love of Christ

Some pastors in the community wondered how The Salvation Army could switch gears and fulfill its mission so quickly. “It’s only because of the love of Christ and how He’s taught us how to serve others,” Robert said. “These events became a wonderful opportunity to share Christ with others.”

That spirit was displayed by the Migas who delivered devotions to the beneficiaries each day on the topic of helping others.

“We taught them that no matter what happens in our life, we have time for others,” Gayle said.

She particularly focused on Matthew 14 where Jesus feeds 5,000 people starting with just five loaves of bread and two fish.

“All of a sudden, people were hungry. How were they going to feed themselves? We took that passage and said, ‘How are we going to feed our communities, not only with food and milk and bread, but with kindness?’ Our people listened well,” Gayle said. “They wanted to help.”

Robert later used the five loaves illustration when he told the beneficiaries they helped prepare 5 million food boxes.

“When I threw that 5 million figure out there, they were astonished by it,” he said. “I could see growth in people who hadn’t given back in the past, but they were happy to be a part of something now.”

The ARC is still receiving food donations and sharing them with other social services organizations and churches.

“We can do that because we have the space,” Gayle said.

Loretta Zolkowski, executive director of the Human Services Leadership Council, a membership organization of nearly 70 human services nonprofits serving Central New York, said The Salvation Army was integral.

“Simply put, this initiative would not have been possible without the logistics equipment, and most important, the expertise and the genuine spirit of collaboration demonstrated consistently, week after week, by Majors Gayle and Robert Miga and their team and by everyone in The Salvation Army who played a significant role in the success of the initiative,” Zolkowski said.

by Robert Mitchell