By James Cullum
ALEXANDRIA,VA- It was the morning of the last Saturday of October at the Leonard “Chick” Armstrong Recreation Center, and you should’ve seen Mackenzie Davis helping folks out. Seriously! For more than four hours, the 15-year-old student at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School did what she does every month – volunteer with ALIVE! (ALexandrians In Volved Ecumenically). Her job that day was to help food recipients receive boxes of produce, and she seamlessly alternated between speaking English, Spanish, and sign language. No kidding! At one point, Davis used sign language to tell a deaf woman her name and asked if she needed any help carrying her box full of food. The woman responded that she did.
“Personally, it’s a great accomplishment for me,” Davis said of volunteering for ALIVE! “It’s hard for folks who don’t know two languages, and you just see their faces light up when they know you speak Spanish. They come thinking they’re going to have to demonstrate what they need with hand gestures, and it’s really nice to know that they have that one person who can help them.”
ALIVE! ended up giving away approximately 11 tons of food at three distribution points that day. And, as immigrant populations may be wary of government enforcement, there was a note clearly visible at the sign-in desk, which read in English and Spanish: “No personal information you provide is shared with any government agency. The information is for our internal use to help us develop a better food program for you.”
Last year the organization gave away 500,000 pounds of food to more than 3,000 Alexandrians per month, gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than 2,800 families to pay for their bills [up to $500 per utility bill], helped with medical expenses, and provided housewares and furniture.
James Crumley has volunteered with ALIVE! for the last 14 years. Like Davis, he volunteers one day of the month.
“For me it means just helping others who need a helping hand. And that’s what I was taught growing up,” Crumley said. “We were poor and were always taught that we enriched ourselves by giving back to others. My daughter is grown now and I see that same giving spirit in her, that willingness to give back and benefit others.”
By the way, ALIVE! needs volunteers and food donations! What’s your schedule look like?
The Need Is Increasing
Now in its 50th year, ALIVE! Is bigger than ever, but the need is also increasing, according to Jennifer Ayers, the nonprofit’s executive director. Ayers took over in August, and manages seven full time staff and hundreds of volunteers. She estimates that the charity, which gives food to 13 pantries, is experiencing a 5 percent increase in demand for its food assistance programs.
“We’re trying to understand it. We’re seeing changes in immigration patterns and we’re also seeing more people come into the City of Alexandria, and we do think a lot of it comes from the high cost of living,” Ayers said.
While Alexandria’s unemployment rate hovers at around 3 percent, having a job doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out of poverty. In 2010, 70 percent of more than 12,000 Alexandrians living at or below the federal government’s poverty threshold were employed, according to a 2014 study. That means that one in five Alexandrians have a hard time putting food on the table.
ALIVE! stores donated food in a warehouse on South Payne Street in Old Town. On a recent visit, the warehouse was about 75 percent full, which was due to a huge donation on World Food Day on Oct. 16. It was also Alexandria Food Day, and the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington’s St. Lucy Food Project gave ALIVE! 5,000 pounds of non-perishable food!
“Donating this amount of food in one delivery is just an incredible experience,” said Vincent A. Cannava, program director for the St. Lucy Food Project. “What you see is the result of countless parishes across the diocese offering food to those in need. There are a lot of people who will not go to bed hungry as a result of their generosity.”
Alexandria Sheriff’s Deputy Morgan Garner was inspired to participate by an article in The Zebra, and donated more than three hours in the rain.
“I love it,” Garner said. “I was born and raised here, so it feels great that I’m able to give back to the people I grew up with, the people who raised me.”
Ann Patterson became the director of the ALIVE! Food Program at around the same time as Ayers, and volunteered with the organization for a number of years. She said that the need has steadily increased over the course of the last two years.
“In the last two fiscal years, the amount of food provided to the community pantries is up 28 percent,” Patterson said. “On Wednesday, we had a huge donation, but before that I was getting concerned of how we were going to meet our needs.”
Ayers said that the need can be greatest after the holidays have passed. Those cold winter months can be a brutal period, and she encourages groups to organize food drives and volunteer. Financial donations are also always welcome. Aside from the last Saturday of the month, the organizations’ biggest distributions are home deliveries – three day supplies of groceries that are delivered to seniors and other families in need once a month.
“We need volunteers across the board,” she said. “We need them for every program, food particularly – even to help Ann at a supermarket on a Saturday with tables to collect food and bring it back and sort it. The furniture program also needs volunteers on a regular basis.”
Patterson has lived in Alexandria for 20 years, and said that the city has a charitable spirit.
“For being an urban center right outside of DC, there is a homey and neighborhood feeling with neighbors helping neighbors. There’s definitely that sentiment to our city,” she said.
Welcome to ALIVE! House
For nearly 50 years, ALIVE! has also run a transitional housing program for single mothers and their children. Hundreds of Alexandrians have lived rent-free in the home, which is offered for up to two years. Families live in an undisclosed townhouse in Old Town, and sleep in rooms with bunk beds and share a bathroom and common areas.
“It’s a humbling experience. I’m here to support them, and I learn from them. They’re resilient, they all have different stories, and it took a lot for them to get here,” said ALIVE! House Resident Manager Pharrah Poliard. “I’m here to help them with whatever it is that they need, helping them with what they need to learn while they’re here – just walking with them as they go through their journey.”
Hundreds of women and children have worked their ways to better lives by living in ALIVE! House. When there is an opening, families are referred to the program through the Alexandria Office of Community Services.
“My role is basically to be here in the evenings and weekends,” said Poliard, who has lived at ALIVE! House for the last five year. “It can range from helping them with supplies, their having someone to talk to. Maybe they need to have something moved ,or, you know, any maintenance issue with the house. So, that’s really what my role is. It’s more of a peer support type role.”
ALIVE! House Director Betsy Sciavolino said that volunteers are welcome.
“We need like some kind of maintenance superhero to come in, for sure,” Sciavolino said. “It’s a big challenge. We’re always doing maintenance. We’re always looking for volunteers to help with maintenance issues around the house.”
Sciavolino is also looking for volunteer mentors to work with ALIVE! House residents, like Realtors and beauticians. She also currently needs all-purpose cleaner, diapers (sizes 5, 6, and pull-ups 2T–5T), dish soap, laundry detergent, paper towels, and Swiffer wet refills.
“We have really low barrier. Basically, we don’t have a lot of requirements to entry, for the most part. So a criminal record is fine,” Sciavolino said. “Everything that I do is just focused on being an encouraging, supportive, and enriching community for the families that live here.”