Like many frontline workers in Newport County, Rhode Island, Elena was hit hard by the pandemic. A single mom of a three-year-old daughter, she was working in food services at a local university. The state shutdown in March 2020 forced the university to cut back Elena’s hours, leaving her unable to pay for her daughter’s preschool at The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center (MLK Center). The Center was able to subsidize that cost, so her daughter could continue benefitting from not only the high-quality education and enrichment of the program, but also its nutritious daily breakfast, lunch and snack.
“When we told Elena we could subsidize her daughter’s childcare, she burst into tears,” Director of Development Alyson Novick recalls. “Like so many of our clients, she was just one paycheck away from financial struggle.”
Throughout the rest of 2020, Elena came to the MLK Center for many other services. She was among the 578 families given a turkey and fixings to bring home and cook for Thanksgiving dinner, and one of 559 families who “shopped” in the Center’s pantry for Christmas dinner staples, which were accompanied by supermarket gift cards. Elena’s daughter was one of 820 kids who received a bundle of toys and a gift card for Christmas from the MLK’s Santa’s Workshop program.
The MLK Center has offered services like these to the community since its founding in 1922 (it was renamed in 1968 in Dr. King’s honor). Dignity and equity are common themes in all of its work. It distributes food and living essentials both on-site and via mobile delivery to at-risk individuals, families and seniors. In addition to its preschool, it also offers affordable after-school and summer camp programs.
The MLK Center’s Mobile Food Pantry visited more than 9 neighborhoods 120 times in 2020. A mobile version of its year-round fresh produce distribution program, Produce to the People, will launch in June 2021, delivering local fruits and vegetables weekly.
“Food insecure people want healthy food,” says Novick. “They just don’t have access to it.”
The elderly have relied heavily on the Center during the pandemic. When an outbreak was identified in the Tiverton Housing Authority senior facility, MLK staffers took personal orders from quarantined residents and delivered everything from perishable goods to pet food, shampoo and incontinence briefs to their doorsteps. As vaccinations picked up the following spring, the MLK Center resumed hosting its weekly Lunch & Learn sessions, which provide both fellowship and support to seniors. After a challenging year of isolation, people were thrilled to see each other again at the first bingo game in March 2021.
While many Rhode Island residents consider access to the water their birthright, pricey day passes at public beaches and a lack of transportation make it nearly prohibitive for low-income families. That’s why the MLK Center makes a point to bring its summer campers to the beach and to get them on the water through partner programs like Sail Newport.
“At the MLK Community Center, we believe that if you uplift one family, you uplift the whole community,” says Executive Director Heather Hole Strout. “We are so grateful that EWE Spirit is helping us do that.”
Note: The client’s name in the above case description was changed to maintain her privacy.