November 10, 2020 Community Stories
Holyoke: A Caring Community Fends Off Hunger
Early in the pandemic, a conference call among Holyoke’s social service providers revealed a disturbing problem: While the city’s children and youth—many with parents who’d suffered job layoffs—could get breakfast and lunch at food distribution sites at local schools, they couldn’t get dinner. And many were hungry.
Not only that, more than 350 youth were staying in Holyoke’s homeless shelters, untethered from the comfort, security, and safety of homes.
Eileen Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke, had 25 years under her belt working “in the city’s afterschool world,” as she puts it. She knew Holyoke’s families—and the fragility of their incomes, housing, and health.
That’s why, at the height of the pandemic, the Club churned out 900 “grab and go” dinners, five days per week, for distribution to Holyoke’s young people confronting food insecurity.
“It took a community,” Cavanaugh said. One that refused to let its children go hungry. And it took the determination of a nimble Board of Directors, a host of community agencies, some loyal volunteers, and two local farms that delivered milk, fruit and vegetables when they were needed most.
The Boys & Girls Club rallied in other necessary ways. When the pandemic began, it applied for and operated an emergency childcare center—one of two in Holyoke.
Childcare was critical to essential workers like the nursing assistants working at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke, which had one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the nation.
Of them, Cavanaugh said, “These moms were coming home from working in an incredibly high-risk situation, picking their kids up from the Club. And the fact that we were able to send them home with dinner…It relieved moms of a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety about how they were going to feed their kids.”
Holyoke’s community agencies—including the schools and the housing authority—helped spread the word and distribute meals, too. All youth under age 18 (or their parents) could get a meal, which always included a protein, vegetable, fruit, and whole grain.
The Club eventually bolstered its vital meal distribution efforts thanks to a COVID-19 Response Fund grant from the Community Foundation.
“The Community Foundation came in at the perfect time,” she said. The funds paid for a milk cooler, a large refrigerator, shelving tables, and additional staff including a driver for food deliveries.
The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke knows their work is far from over. They are still running the childcare center and distributing 550 meals daily. The latter, she says, also provides opportunities for her staff to conduct “mini-wellness checks” on Holyoke’s young people. Before the pandemic, many participated in the Club’s robust day school or afterschool enrichment activities.
Cavanaugh said, “We’re so appreciative that the Community Foundation was incredibly responsive and told us, ‘Please use the funding for what is most needed.’ We did.”