Since March, more than 10,750 bags of food have gone to families in the community through Empowering Culpeper, a food distribution program to help people in need.
So said the program’s manager, Jill Skelton, this week after its most recent event, held Saturday at Culpeper United Methodist Church.
“From March to October, we had 11 drive-through events that served 1,550 cars, 1,972 households and 7,666 individuals,” Skelton said.
“I know those numbers are hard to translate into something meaningful, but what it all means is I’m just completely overwhelmed at the way our community pulls together to help others,” she added.
Empowering Culpeper, though not the only venue in the county through which those suffering have received assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic, is likely the biggest, Skelton said.
Working with the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Culpeper County Human Services helps identify community members in need and provides estimates for the numbers to plan each event.
A program of the regional nonprofit People Inc., a Virginia community action agency, Empowering Culpeper has been distributing food in Culpeper every month for nearly 20 years, since 2003. And for the past eight years, they’ve been doing it at Culpeper United Methodist Church.
So returning there on Saturday was a little like coming home.
“The church has been so generous, we’re so grateful to them and their willingness to work with us on this,” Skelton said.
Empowering Culpeper would never have left the church venue had it not been for the dramatic increase in the number of people seeking food assistance since the pandemic began.
Between February and March, the number of people who needed help jumped from roughly 150 to nearly 300. Numbers have remained elevated. On Saturday, 200 households were provided with nourishment, with just over 1,000 bags of food.
Empowering Culpeper developed a drive-through, contact-free method of picking up the food, which was less likely to spread the virus, and needed more space than was available in the CMUC parking lot.
Through April, May, June and July, it operated from the Culpeper Sports Complex near Eastern View High School, then moved to Culpeper County High’s parking lot from August through October.
Now, though, with the cold weather months ahead, a different plan had to be developed.
“We worked really hard making a safe and healthy plan to be able to do it inside,” Skelton said. “We limited the number of people inside at any given time, calling each client in one at a time, and reduced the number of volunteers by about half.”
“Everyone was required to wear a mask,” she went on. “We had a sanitation team wiping down every surface, especially high-contact surfaces. We hung plastic barriers in front of the registrars, put fans in place to keep air circulating, and kept the doors open to the outside. We found a number of ways to reduce any kind of contact.”
But the greatest success of the program throughout the pandemic, Skelton said, is how so many different groups and individuals in the community have pitched in along the way.
“We have a solid group of about 100 volunteers who have got this whole thing down to a science,” she said. “I can’t say enough how wonderful they are.”
Besides the core group, others have jumped in to help, including students, faculty and Principal Daniel Soderholm at Culpeper County High School, a youth group from LifePoint Church, and many others, she said.
“The Humane Society has been out there with us every single time, giving out food for people’s pets,” Skelton said. “That’s something many don’t think about.”
Culpeper Human Services gave out school supplies in backpacks at one distribution. At others, “blessing bags” have been given out, packed with personal hygiene items, donated and distributed by local churches. Hot sandwiches have been handed out a number of times.
“This last Saturday, Culpeper Emergency Services gave out health-equity bags with sanitizer, masks and health information to every household,” Skelton said.
Members of the Medical Reserve Corps assisted at the drive-through events, directing traffic, but lately have been called upon to help the regional health district administer flu shots.
“So the Civil Air Patrol stepped in, doing a fantastic job helping with traffic and parking—they were helping us on Saturday,” Skelton said. “We’re so appreciative, their cadets have been wonderful.”
Having so many working together for the common good has been inspirational to her.
“We’ve had to adapt quickly to circumstances none of us could have anticipated, that have posed some pretty unusual problems,” Skelton said. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that Culpeper can be counted on to come together and make good things happen.”