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Hitting close to home

The COVID–19 “hotspot” known as Chelsea, Mass., continues to attract national attention as hungry people line up each day for food at the Chelsea/East Boston Salvation Army.

However, this tells only part of the story. Separately from the corps, the Massachusetts Division’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) team has partnered with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), the city of Chelsea, and the National Guard to provide almost 5,000 emergency food boxes to the troubled city.

Chris Farrand, the division’s EDS director, remembers when COVID-19 first began to ravage Chelsea last month.

“The city of Chelsea reached out to the governor’s office and said, ‘We are in an absolute crisis. Our COVID cases have gone through the roof, food insecurity has gone through the roof, joblessness is affecting everyone, people are quarantined and isolated, and can’t get food,’” Farrand said.

Governor Charlie Baker began to mobilize resources throughout Massachusetts.

“It’s the first time that any city in the commonwealth had had that level of what we’re calling a hotspot,” Farrand said.

The Salvation Army and MEMA already had a relationship and quickly enlisted the help of the National Guard.

“There would be lines literally wrapped about two city block,” Farrand said. “There were hundreds of people lining up to get anything they could, and The Salvation Army was providing the food that the National Guard was giving out.

“There was always more need than food. We were truly there as a disaster stopgap and to give the city a chance to build up its infrastructure. The city has been able to take over more and more.”

The 5,000 food boxes include about 30 meals, enough to provide 150,000 total meals by mid–May. Meanwhile, the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Boston cranked up its commercial kitchen to provide an additional 3,000 bag meals per week.

“Basically, Chelsea was saying, ‘Any food you can get, we’ll take,’” Farrand said.

Captain Isael Gonzalez of the Chelsea/East Boston Corps said the city is home to a large Hispanic population. Many of them lost their jobs when businesses were forced to close.

The National Guard distributes a food box to a woman in Chelsea, Mass.

Farrand calls it the “cascading consequences of COVID.” Many people are quarantined and isolated, jobless, and getting food however they can.

“You have people with no money and places with no food and all of that combined to form the perfect storm in Chelsea of serious food insecurity issues,” Farrand said.

Farrand, who has been deployed to Haiti and other locations around the world for disaster relief, said he usually deploys for two weeks or a month.

“When I go, I’m going 80 miles an hour and doing 14–hour days,” he said. “I want to help, and I always realize, I can keep doing all this work because at some point, I’m going to be able to go home.

However, this disaster is more than two months long and counting.I can’t leave this disaster,” he said. “There’s no break. Every day is 80 miles an hour and every day is just as hectic as the previous day.

“I’m probably 10 weeks into this and so personally, the level of exhaustion and the challenges are much greater.”

Being in contact with people he has known for 10 or 12 years rather than with strangers is another challenge, Farrand said.

“It’s my division. It’s my state. It’s my people,” he said.

That point was driven home when Farrand dropped off food at a hotel for COVID-positive homeless people in a town near his home.

“I’m literally delivering groceries from my garage,” he said. “It makes it much more a ‘Chris Farrand experience’ than an ‘EDS director-being-deployed’ experience.

“When I’m standing in Chelsea and I’m seeing the same visuals I would see when I’m deployed to Puerto Rico or Florida or Haiti, and I’m seeing it in a town that I’m in every few weeks, it’s overwhelming. These are people I’m with all the time and they’re struggling in a way that I want to help them, and I do the best I can, but I know it’s a huge issue that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.”

Farrand said the thing that has kept him going throughout it all is his faith.

“I see God’s hand on so many doors opening and so many opportunities in the resources we’re getting and the ways we’re able to help people. I lean on that,” he said. “It’s so big and things seem like they could fall apart so quickly.

“Sometimes I literally have to say, ‘OK God, you said you’re going to take care of me through this. The waters are rising up to my neck right now.’ Things look like they’re going to fall apart, but all I can do is hold onto Him. Then I see Him get me through to the other side of the river. I’ve seen that over and over through this COVID response.”

by Robert Mitchell

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