Guest blogger Lisa Mello Frost, Director of PACE YouthBuild New Bedford

 

As a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, PACE decided to halt in-person services just as our YouthBuild members prepared to head to their 5-week paid internships. As a member of a community action partnership agency with a food bank, PACE YouthBuild saw firsthand the food insecurity the pandemic has caused in New Bedford.

Two young male workers holding bags of food at food bank

PACE YouthBuild New Bedford staff began operating a mobile pop-up food bank in our YouthBuild parking lot in the fourth week of the shutdown, and it steadily grew to where we were serving close to 200 families every Thursday in a 90-minute window. As our mobile pop-up expanded, the PACE Food Bank began serving the same number of clients daily that they had initially served weekly. PACE could access more supplies to fulfill clients’ needs but did not have the staffing resources to create bags and boxes for families. We offered up our YouthBuild New Bedford internship-ready members, and we set out to create a food distribution system that could work. PACE was given free warehouse space to house the additional supply and remains the home base of the operation.

YouthBuild participants worked 20 hours a week in six-member teams with two program staff members. PACE paid them a stipend that amounted to 20 hours at Massachusetts’ minimum wage.

As we began to increase our supply and productivity, our food distribution operation supplied the PACE Food Bank, the YouthBuild weekly mobile pop-up, and other community organizations supporting food insecurity. Our construction staff handled the deliveries to the PACE Food Bank and multiple community organizations. At the height of the pandemic, the PACE YouthBuild members and staff were creating, delivering, and partially distributing food packages for 1,800 to 2,000 families weekly.

Our internship component was a bit different than we had anticipated during this pandemic but has worked out to be highly beneficial for all involved. Our members were able to utilize their leadership skills, as they were the ones who made the daily decisions. They decided on the food that went into each bag and who did what job. They interacted with the people utilizing our services, did the paperwork and data entry, and designed delivery schedules. Program staff acted in a low-key supervisory role and were given assignments by the participants. Like any work in progress, we had to make changes along the way to create a safe workspace for everyone.

Upon entering the warehouse, YouthBuild staff and participants wore masks, and their temperature was taken and recorded. Anyone who measured at the 100.4 CDC-mandated maximum temperature was sent home. Members had specific jobs in the warehouse, and those preparing food setups were in their clearly marked separate areas. A strict glove changing or hand sanitizing schedule was maintained and completed as a group. Workers sanitized all surfaces and equipment used at the end of each workday. Members also alternately worked the YouthBuild pop-up.

During this time of uncertainty and fear, the members of PACE YouthBuild have shown the community of New Bedford what it truly means to serve. In turn, YouthBuild members saw firsthand what their service provides to this community. The community also became involved in our initiative. Our weekly pop-up would often have people stopping by to offer donations, coffee, and even the occasional bottle of wine from regular patrons! Not only were we able to provide our participants and community with a quality service and internship opportunity, but we were also able to graduate a class of nine in June 2020.

Upon graduation, our nine June YouthBuild New Bedford graduates and three of our December 2019 graduates were hired as PACE employees! They now run the food distribution warehouse independently, with the two strongest workers acting as supervisors. The group balances the work at the warehouse and the PACE primary food bank. YouthBuild staff continues to support from afar. We are excited that our YouthBuild New Bedford internship program has turned into both a part-time job and an opportunity for graduates to earn advanced skills increasing their future employability. Helping our community and experiencing the impact firsthand at our mobile weekly pop-up food bank has been the most rewarding service experience for our staff and members.

What began out of the necessity of need has grown into an exciting future for YouthBuild New Bedford. Eight of the 12 graduates who started at PACE are still employed, and one is currently being cross-trained to move into another arm of the agency. The success of the YouthBuild Food Bank partnership has caused PACE to purchase a new home for the food bank and expand its services. Watching the past year play out has also allowed us to develop an intentional, strength-based program that helps our young people continue to hone the skills learned at YouthBuild and earn additional credentials.

A well-known proverb is, “necessity is the mother of invention.” The necessities that grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic have invented a host of new and exciting possibilities for YouthBuild New Bedford.