DETROIT - For more than three years, the Ford Resource and Engagement Center (FREC) on Detroit’s east side has helped one of city’s most challenged neighborhoods with free services — everything from food to tax preparation to job placement assistance.
But on March 13, everything changed. We had to discontinue most in-person outreach in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a difficult decision. As we built the FREC into a neighborhood resource and destination, the children, parents and neighbors who visit us have become extended members of our own families.
During our normal operation one of the most rewarding things we do is food distribution. Once a week, a Gleaners Community Food Bank truck pulls up and offloads several thousand pounds of fresh produce, protein and canned goods. My FREC team work with volunteers to organize and pack the food, then hand bags out to people who come by the center.
Even though we continued to distribute food outside the FREC through mid-March, the weekly walk-up numbers declined. It wasn’t difficult to figure out why. Many of the people who depend on our food to stretch their weekly household budget are older. Not everyone has a car. Add to that a general fear of crowds and public spaces.
It’s time like these when the grassroots relationships we develop pay off. Neighborhood block clubs have become key partners of mine, not just for food distribution, but also for various funded and unfunded programming that organically comes out of our center.
I reached out to several groups including Denby Neighborhood Alliance and Regent Park Homeowner Association. With their help we identified 22 households within a five-mile radius of the FREC that had homebound and vulnerable community members needing food services.
Ford Motor Company Fund has been coordinating the use of company Transit shuttles for food delivery across metro Detroit. We got on the schedule and soon the vans were bringing fresh vegetables, meat, bread and other items to the residents.
In addition to the delivery services, we continue to provide food to neighbors who walk or drive up to our outdoor distribution system at the FREC. All told, FREC East serviced 92 households during the last March distribution. The reactions from our neighbors has been overwhelmingly positive — and heartwarming.
We are thinking outside of the box to meet the other, ongoing needs of the community. Our free legal clinic is offering virtual appointments to clients through Zoom. Energy assistance and job placement services are also being made available online. We are looking into how to offer other services virtually.
And we are planning to bring more meals to the families that received them in March and April. Our next distribution dates are May 4, 16, 19 and 27.
The community that we serve has come to know the FREC as a dependable resource. I am happy that we have been able to maintain that role even in the face of unprecedented hardship.