Wesley Bell

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell loading a car with donations during the Urban Leagues 5th food distribution in as many weeks at the Jamestown Mall  Sat. May 2, 2020. Photo by Wiley Price / St. Louis American

“Stronger than Corona,” James Clark, incoming Vice President of Public Safety and Community Response for the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, said as he made eye contact with a volunteer. ‘You better know it,” the volunteer responded. They followed up the call and response with what could be described as a “socially distant dap.” Clark raised his elbow in the direction of the volunteer. The volunteer mirrored the movement. They couldn’t touch, but it was clear that they felt each other. It appeared to a ritual between the volunteers as Clark repeated the same “Stronger than Corona” greeting to at least a half-dozen volunteers. Each response was identical.

Chins lifted, elbows high. Smiling eyes overcompensating for facial expressions that masks have forced them to cover. “You better know it.”

Thanks to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis – with the assistance of several sponsors and community partners – the team of volunteers went about the work to proving their greeting true.  On this Friday morning, four weeks ago, it was only the second of five drive-thru food and toiletries distribution events that have taken place in St. Louis City, St. Louis County and the Metro East.

That installment, which took place in the parking lot of the business strip that houses the Urban League Northside Community Empowerment Center on Aubert Avenue near Kingshighway in St. Louis City. They had conducted the effort only once before, but they already had their rhythm and logistics down to a science.

The line was so long the week before at the inaugural giveaway – which took place in the parking lot of the Urban League’s Jennings office – that police had to get involved to direct the impeded traffic. The line for entry stretched from Jennings Station Rd. and Halls Ferry nearly to the I-70 exit about two miles down the road. Cars came from every direction trying to maneuver their way into the line to take advantage of the resource.

For the second week, their first in the city, they had traffic cops posted where they predicted cars would funnel into the line. By 10 a.m. cars were lined up for several city blocks, even though the event didn’t start until noon.

“They started lining up at 9 a.m.,” Clark said.

Clark, several Urban League employees and distribution volunteer team had been on site since 8 a.m.  The volunteers responsible for assembling the care packages had been at it for at least two shifts the night before. Their process would rival any high-performance assembly plant.

“It’s been more than a notion, but we are all pulling together to make it work,” said Monique Williams-Moore, Project Director for the Urban League’s Workforce Development arm.

After spending time at the food assembly station the evening before, she was there bright and early on Friday to aid in the logistics of the distribution of immediate relief to those who have been impacted by the pandemic. Moore’s new reality since the onset of  COVID-19 has meant a shift in work responsibilities.  It’s a different means to the same end. Before the pandemic, she worked to place people in jobs so that they could be able to feed their families. On this day she was helping feed families directly as a much-needed front line responder. Her work attire has gone from business casual, to t-shirt, tennis shoes, a protective mask and gloves.

“It’s about stepping up in times of crisis,” Moore said.

Just as with the Ferguson unrest, The Urban League has done exactly that in their efforts to extend a helping hand in the wake of unprecedented uncertainty brought on because of COVID-19.

By morning, packages were stacked high on each side of drive through tents for maximum efficiency. Cars were to drive through pop their trunk and receive a care package of food, toiletries and protective gear – including face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. Among the grocery items were watermelons, mangoes, potatoes, chickens, prepackaged salad mix, snacks, juice, milk, non-perishables and other items.  Recipients stayed in their cars as volunteers filled trunks. They were grateful as they drove off, even though they couldn’t get a full scope of the gift until they were back at home.

Because of social distancing, contact between volunteers and the individuals they blessed was kept at a minimum.  The necessary precautions meant that some couldn’t be served. A woman walking with a small child and a toddler in a stroller walked up to the lot. “I need to speak with whoever is in charge of this,” she said. “I’m not in charge, but I will try to answer any question you may have,” said Farrakhan Shegog. “How can I help you?”

She went on to explain that she came to the event upon the recommendation of her social worker, but one of the other volunteers told her that she could not be served because they are only allowing volunteers at the designated drive-thru points.  Shegog said that the information given to her by the other volunteer was in fact correct.

“So that means, if you don’t have a car you can’t get this help,” the woman said. “It’s us out here without transportation that need it the most.”

Before Shegog could get too deep into his apologies, she had already turned her back to him and started walking towards the office – where she received the same response.

“You want to say, ‘come on.’  You want to help everybody,” Shegog said. “But we have to protect ourselves – and them. This is the safe way to do this, and by being safe means social distancing.” The size of the packages they were distributing meant that serving pedestrians and adhering to social distance recommendations were not an option.

Less than 30 minutes before the two rows of drive-thru stations began directing cars to come through, excitement among the volunteers was at a fever pitch. “Twenty-five more minutes and it’s about to go down,” volunteer Tony Simpson said as he commentated after going live on Facebook.  He walked his audience of followers through the care package station and then gave them a glimpse of the cars that had been lined up in every direction.

The goal was to bless 1,500. They ended up serving more than 1,700 that afternoon.  The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis thrillingly announced more than $100,000 was poured into the community by way of their giveaway.  After Jennings and St. Louis City, they took their well-oiled community service machine to the Illinois side with similar set ups in East St. Louis and Alton, Illinois.

By the time the Urban League made it back to St. Louis County this Saturday – setting up shop at the site of Jamestown Mall – the scale of the giveaway had nearly doubled.

“Thanks to the additional donations of food from Sysco, Dot Foods, Operation Food Search, The Food Bank and Dollar General, we provided over $200,000 in food, toiletries, masks, gloves, sanitizer and energy efficient light bulbs to 2800 families,” Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis President and CEO Michael McMillan announced via Facebook.

Cars lined up from New Halls Ferry and Lindbergh heading towards the former mall site – which according to a COVID-19 case count by The St. Louis County Department of Public Health is in one of the zip codes has been most heavily impacted by the virus.

McMillan and his team were joined by St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell. 

“Thanks to our staff, volunteers and partners that made all of this possible. We will get through this together,” McMillan said.

Stronger than Corona. You better know it.

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