Volunteers distribute food at community market

Volunteers from across various sectors in Avery County, including YMCA of Avery County employees Bonnie Clark and Erin Spear, delivered food to 223 different families during Feeding Avery Families’ Community Market on Thursday, March 19.

NEWLAND — In these times of uncertainty, many Avery residents have questions related to their basic necessities. With unemployment increasing and many people living paycheck to paycheck, the circumstances can seem overwhelming. Yet the response from the community comes with a resounding clarity: help is on the way.

All across the county, government organizations, nonprofits, charities, private businesses and individuals alike are stepping up, reaching out and extending a hand—or elbow, rather—to those most impacted by the sweeping effects of COVID-19.

Ever since the state mandated that restaurants close their dining rooms and ordered schools to shut down for two weeks, as well as banned gatherings of large groups of people, food distribution and security has been a top priority locally.

On Thursday, March 19, Feeding Avery Families received its regular food drop off from MANNA FoodBank as part of its Community Market. FAF Director Larson expected there to be an increase in demand due to the response of the virus, and he was not wrong. Volunteers set up a drive through system at the community swimming pool parking lot and by go-time at midday, cars were lined up, stretching around the Rock Gym and backed up all the way to Linville Street.

“We average about 75 meals a month, and I think we tripled it today,” Larson said. “[MANNA] brought a lot more food, they traditionally bring six to seven pallets, I think we had 10 pallets today. We had about three times as many families as we generally have.”

FAF managed to deliver a box of food to 223 families with the help of a bevy of volunteers, including staff from the YMCA and the Avery County Sheriff’s Office. Boxes were full of whole-family meals and fresh produce such as sweet potatoes, cabbage, boxes of cereal and the occasional delicacy such as a pack of popular chocolate marshmallow pies.

Amongst the line of families were people like Brenda and Julie Puckett, who picked up a total of five boxes to be delivered to the elderly and others who are unable to leave their homes.

“I just want to say that I hope God blesses each and every person who is out here trying to help other people. I don’t care who it is, I want to thank them. It’s wonderful,” Brenda Puckett said.

The mother and daughter duo have both been too close for comfort to the Coronavirus pandemic that has been gradually spreading throughout North Carolina and Tennessee. Julie has a daughter who works at Labcorp in Johnson City, where she tests blood samples for COVID-19.

“It’s scary because she’s out there on the front lines every day. We worry about her. She finally got a mask yesterday,” Julie said.

“The thing is that we babysit her little boy and she is worried about bringing [the virus] in on us and bringing it on her son and her husband, but she has to work. [The job] won’t let her do anything different,” Brenda said.

The following day, on Friday, March 20, FAF was at it again, distributing a total of 161 boxes of food to cars lined up around the Newland Shopping Center. The nonprofit also distributed another 21 emergency boxes to families during the same week.

Meanwhile, Reaching Avery Ministries was hopping on the school buses with boxes of their own, and sheriff’s deputies were out and about delivering food to the elderly.

“We just want to be servants and help everybody,” Deputy Sheriff Lee Buchanan said. “It’s going to take a little while to adjust [to the changes], but the sheriff wants us to do more serving, and we are going to help in any way we can. It takes everybody out here to help do this, and it just shows the strength of good ‘ol mountain folk. Everybody’s family. It don’t matter if you were born here or moved here. You’re family, and you’re worth helping.”

On Thursday and Friday, March 19 and 20, RAM delivered food boxes to 92 families and eight elderly. Once buses were loaded at Newland Elementary they stopped by the food pantry and added on toilet tissue, diapers and baby formula along with an assortment of other supplies. Teachers, who have been making phone calls to their students at least twice a week, have also been asking the kids if their families are in need of food or anything else.

“I’m very proud of our county and how we’ve pulled together to meet the need,” RAM Director Janet Millsaps said. “The YMCA employees volunteered, and teachers and principals were on these school buses that were handing out this extra food. Everybody is working together to get it out.”

Apart from being the only food pantry in the county that is open five days a week, RAM distributes on average 140 food boxes a month in addition to providing financial assistance to those in need.

“We are going to be hit really hard. As of this time, we’ve helped people who are [already] out of work. We had waitresses today; the restaurants are closed down. People who don’t normally ask for help are feeling the crunch already,” Millsaps said.

By the end of the day on Friday, March 20, the school system had distributed more than 2,800 breakfasts and lunches for the students, averaging around 600 meals delivered per day. The delivery system had to be quickly put in place after Gov. Roy Cooper issued his executive order on March 14 to close schools. Avery County Schools began its first day of distribution on Monday, March 16, and delivered 515 meals. Additionally, study packets were delivered on Wednesday, March 18.

“It’s just definitely a demonstration of an outstanding community. We’re so blessed to be a part of it. To see the care being expressed for everyone throughout the county and the support offered from multiple agencies is just a heart-warming experience to see such a loving community that we’re blessed to call home. We live in a great place with great people,” ACS Superintendent Dr. Dan Brigman said.

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