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Let’s take this outside!

When Massachusetts authorities declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19, Captains Isael and Brenda Gonzalez were away, taking some pre-planned time off to celebrate Captain Brenda’s birthday. When they returned to the Chelsea Corps the following Monday, they got to work. Their challenge was to maintain a functioning church during the lockdown.

“We didn’t wait to see what plan we were going to be given. We took the initiative and made our own way to keep the corps running,” says Captain Isael.

Some programs, such as the soup kitchen, continued as before, but the food pantry had to be remodeled for the community’s safety. Large quantities of food would soon fill every available space in the corps.

“We thought about still doing the work inside the building while protected and masked up, but we saw that the food on pallets being brought in needed the space,” says Captain Brenda. “It was easier to simply keep the work outside and accessible.”

That was the beginning of Chelsea’s sidewalk pantry. On food distribution days, pallets with food boxes lined the sidewalk as people waited. Sometimes, the line went around the block. There were fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, frozen options such as bacon, and even flu medicine and pet food available as needed. Corps volunteers talked to community members and Latin music played through loudspeakers. The atmosphere resembled an outdoor supermarket that you would find in Spanish-speaking countries.

Along with the food distribution on the sidewalk, a truck was parked on the street of the corps, filled with prepared food boxes containing approximately 30 meals each. Families could drive up and have these boxed meals loaded right in their car, without having to step out.

At the height of the pandemic, the Chelsea Corps served more than 800 families a day. From March of 2020 up to June of 2021, the corps gave over 10.5 million meals to the community.


City connections

“Food Insecurity had been on our radar months before we had even heard of COVID-19,” says Captain Isael. “We were having summits with city and state officials about the food supplies.”

The many food banks in Chelsea makes the town one of the largest supplier of food in New England. Captain Isael says these organizations also help The Salvation Army distribute food quickly.

“When they have food to dispose of, they no longer throw it away. Instead, they call us. We can get everything out in a day,” says Captain Isael. “This isn’t food that is spoiled or rotten. It’s good food that just can’t go on the shelf anymore, but it can go directly to hungry families.”

The logistics of receiving food and getting it to the community is a challenge for many charities, says Captain Isael. Fortunately, he had made connections with various and influential individuals in Chelsea since he arrived.

“Not just government officials, but also school principals and folks in the school board. They are always ready to help with what we need,” says Captain Isael.  “Partnerships are the key to our success. Our partners were there before COVID, but even more so now. I have them on speed dial in my phones, and I know them by their first names,” says Captain Isael.

These partnerships can come in various ways. For example, the city donates a dumpster to make clean up easier after every pantry day, and managers of local dollar stores call the corps as soon as large shipments of cereal arrive. They know that the Chelsea Corps leaders will buy all of it for their pantry.


A ministry of logistics

The Chelsea Corps’ outdoor food pantry stayed open year-round, closing only during a few heavy snowstorms. The Captains Gonzalez  now look forward to the second year of operation.

“The capacity to feed the community that we have been able to achieve has surprised us,” says Captain Brenda. “It was rewarding to see that even though resources were scarce at first, we still got what we needed. We prayed that God would provide, and He did.”

God provided and protected the corps and the volunteers. Even though they met and gave food to people who had COVID-19, the Captains Gonzalez stayed healthy throughout. They also knew that those people had to show up or else their families would go hungry.

“We didn’t stay away from anyone. We worked hard to get everyone what they needed quickly,” remembers Captain Brenda. The Chelsea Corps also arranged ways to have food safely delivered directly to the homes of those who were housebound.

“When it comes down to it, projects like this are a work of logistics,” says Captain Brenda. “You look at the space you have, decide what and where you’re moving, see the numbers of people you have to help, and go from there.”

“When we decided to take all this outside, we had to reinvent what we knew about running food pantries. But finding new ways to help people is something The Salvation Army does well.”

by Hugo Bravo