“Food is the gateway to connections,” according to Sarah O’Donnell, CEO of the Tri-Town YMCA. “When you can sit down around a table and make memories, instead of worrying where the next meal is coming from, you invest in your child’s healthy future.” For the countless families who experienced economic hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tri-Town YMCA stepped up to the plate to offer innovative child nutrition programs, food drives, grab‘n’go services, and even vaccination clinics to reinvigorate the community and show them that they were not alone.
Community and dignity are core values shared by the staff and volunteers at the Tri-Town YMCA. A non-traditional “Y without walls”, the Tri-Town YMCA doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar location to call home. Rather, through partnerships with other local community-based organizations, park districts, and school districts, the YMCA brings its services directly to the community at the lowest cost possible, reinforcing the idea that when neighbors help each other, everyone benefits. “The community really banded together to make sure there was a support system in place for struggling families,” said O’Donnell. During the height of the pandemic, the Tri-Town YMCA expanded from 6 to over 400 dedicated volunteers working hard to ensure no child went hungry. The volunteers piloted grab‘n’go meal services and home deliveries for those who were quarantining or for children who did not have access to transportation. “For many, it was the belief that ‘I trust this neighbor, and I believe they will bring me the nourishing food I need’ which allowed for the program to really take off and reach as many families as possible,” said O’Donnell.
An exciting new middle school summer camp program transports tweens and teens to the local food pantry to learn about the food banking system and where their families can go for extra help when needed, consciously reducing the stigma of accessing food support services. In the last few weeks, kids enrolled in this program have used ingredients picked up at the food pantry in cooking classes where they are taught how to make healthy and filling meals for themselves and their families. The efforts from the Tri-Town YMCA and its volunteers feed 1,000 kids on average per week. And with 6 meal distribution sites offering 7 days’ worth of healthy meals at a time, at least 250 families receive weekly food support to get them back on their feet.
“Health isn’t only about the food we put into our body, but also about those memories and the connections made that brighten our future,” said Sarah O’Donnell. “Instead of volunteers just handing out meals, lifelong relationships were built.” According to O’Donnell, there are countless stories of jobless families who found solace in the meals offered by the Tri-Town YMCA, volunteers who secured employment opportunities through connecting with local community members, and children who had meaningful social experiences. “It’s about all the connections that have been made over a little cardboard box of food,” said O’Donnell. For the families who were previously ashamed for needing support, they now recognize that the program is much more than a free meal. It is allowing their children and their families to build memories, make friends, and move forward to a more hopeful future, together.