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Quarantales #1: Interview with Jennifer Ayers, Executive Director of ALIVE!

Jennifer Ayers, Executive Director, with Ann Patterson, the ALIVE! Food program director. (Zebra file photo by James Cullum)

Stories from Alexandria’s COVID-19 fighters that will make you smile. We hope.

Jennifer Ayers is the executive director of ALIVE!, an inter-faith nonprofit that serves the city’s most vulnerable. (P.S. She needs a 16 foot truck with a lift gate, and storage for the furniture program).

How are you doing?

I’m doing OK. I start out with all kinds of energy and kind of run out at the end of the week. We’re doing a lot. I know I’m missing some stuff but that’s OK. You have to kind of forgive yourself for that.

ALIVE! provided 109,000 pounds of food in April. Pre-Covid, the standard giveaway for the same month would be about 30,000 pounds. (Courtesy photo)

What made you happy this week?

I really enjoyed talking with ACT for Alexandria and Adriana [Gomez Schellhaas, executive director of Casa Chirilagua] on Tuesday and the COVID-19 Community Resource Planning group on Fridays. I was inspired by listening to the stories of how we are all working in partnership and what we have accomplished in this city.

Also, on Tuesday I met a donor from the Latter Day Saints community who presented us with a $10,000 check. We all had on our masks and stood six feet apart, but I could tell that even through his mask that he was in tears. He was so proud that his church could make a donation like that. It was nice to be able to meet him in person. Mostly I do conference calls now.

How many Zoom calls have you been on this week?

A lot! (laughing)

Have you ever worn your pajamas to a Zoom call?

No, but I wear the world’s most comfortable sweatpants. They are made by Champion and have a side pocket and they are nylon and stretchy. They are so comfortable. I just bought more on Amazon. Mostly I wear hoodies and T-shirts and my Crocs. I had to put on real clothes the other day and they were so uncomfortable.

Jennifer Ayers on a ZOOM call at home in sweatpants and crocs. (Cortesy photo)

Tell me in one sentence what ALIVE! is doing in the COVID-19 fight

We do what we do every day only it’s times ten. We provide basic support for people who need essential services, and now they need more of it. Last month we gave out 109,000 pounds of food. Normally we give away 30,000 pounds. And we have to do it differently. We have to wear masks and gloves, so our personal connections are much more difficult. OK, that wasn’t one sentence.

What has been your biggest challenge?

The logistics. How do we store produce in mass quantities? We really need a 16 foot truck with a lift gate since we deliver food to food pantries and other groups as well as personal delivery. And we’re low on meat and eggs and produce. We are also a small staff and we’re trying to do the work of more people in different ways, without our regular crew of volunteers, many of whom cannot volunteer because they are retired and advised to stay home – our staff is stretched and some of our staff are remote – like our child development staff – so we’re spread out and far away from each other- the loss of personal connection is real in many ways.

When we are able to ease up our social distancing, what is the first thing you are going to do?

I need a haircut! I want to hug people and shake hands. I miss the human contact. I miss the personal touch. It’s so awkward to not be able to touch them even if it’s a high five. It’s so weird.

What is the first Alexandria restaurant or business you will visit when they open?

My kids miss pho noodle soup. I guess Caphe Banh Mi. My kids miss going to restaurants so they will pick. It could also be pizza and ice-cream, or seafood- my kids love seafood!

What has been a happy discovery since social distancing?

I feel like people reached out in amazing ways to support out work. They have come from all over the place. New people are asking to help. They have written us big checks. It’s been overwhelming – both the logistics and the emotional part. Every day someone is asking me what they can do to help. Every day. That’s amazing to me.

How can people help you?

I have been overwhelmed by their generosity. The donations have been wonderful. They can donate and volunteer. They can do more food distribution but we can’t take food donations from individuals.  We also like it when people share our story and tell people about what we’re doing.

I also want people to help on a one on one level. Check on your neighbors. Be active in your faith community. Mediate and pray. ALIVE! is posting prayers on our website. We also need ideas and connections to food sources. We also do rental and financial assistance and there’s a huge need for that and it is going to increase. In time, we’ll also need help with translation, phone calls, and when we open back up all of our programs we’ll need people to deliver furniture and housewares, too.

Anything else?

Our furniture program on hold and we need a new place to store it all. A space about the size of a two car garage would be great.

MORE: ALIVE! Wants You to Volunteer!

Jane Collins

Jane Hess Collins is a communications consultant and coach, and holds a masters’ degree in Public Relations & Corporate Communications from Georgetown University. She is the founder and executive director of Heard, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that teaches life skills disguised as art to underserved populations. She retired from the United States Air Force in 2009.

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