Throughout the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, non-profit organizations in Eastern Kentucky have faced a greater need than ever before, and they have worked together to meet that need.
In March 2020, Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency for COVID-19 in Kentucky and ordered all public, non-essential businesses and agencies to close if they could not comply with COVID-related restrictions.
Many of Kentucky’s businesses were ordered to close until May or mid-summer, at the earliest. Unemployment rates in Eastern Kentucky, in particular, more than tripled that month from where they were a year earlier for counties like Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin, Martin, Perry and Pike. As more people were laid off across the region, they sought help from local charitable food donation organizations in order to feed their families.
The East Kentucky Dream Center and the Grace Community Kitchen, two non-profit organizations based in Pikeville that provide free meals every week, have each seen an increased need for their services this past year during the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly during the first months. The Grace Community Kitchen saw its number of weekly guests more than double during the pandemic, and the Dream Center also saw an increase.
“We went from serving about 400-500 people every week before the pandemic to serving more than 700 meals every week when the pandemic started and through the summer,” said Rachel Campbell Dotson, executive director of the East Kentucky Dream Center. “It’s kind of slacked off now, but I feel like jobs are opening back up.”
The East Kentucky Dream Center serves free meals and donates food boxes, hygiene products, clothing vouchers and household items, among other things. Its dining hall is located at 127 Hibbard Street, and its thrift store location is currently located at 616 South Bypass Road. The Grace Community Kitchen, located at 115 Wolford Street, is a ministry of the Grace Fellowship Church and offers free meals, clothing items and household items to the community. The organization offers free meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Monday and Thursday, while the East Kentucky Dream Center offers free meals from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday and Friday.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced these organizations to make adjustments on how they served their meals every week. At the Dream Center, when COVID-19 restrictions were issued, volunteers packaged meals and provided them through carry-out at its dining hall, rather than serving the meals in-person inside the building. The organization also made temporary adjustments to its delivery route every week due to several temporary COVID-related lockdowns that took place at Myers Tower in 2020.
“Thankfully, we’ve only had to stop our meals for two weeks in one year, and I say thankfully because that was when two of our volunteers were diagnosed with COVID so we shut it down,” Dotson said. “But even during that, we put bread and food bags outside. I came back later that evening and they were gone. Even with us not being here, they still utilized our services.”
For the Grace Community Kitchen, volunteers packaged its free meals and served them to families through carry-out, due to the in-person occupancy restrictions during the first months of the pandemic. Like the Dream Center, they have continued to offer carry-out meals during their free meal days, and Grace Community Kitchen has also allowed for in-person dining, while keeping the guests socially distanced inside.
Bailey said she has noticed a definite shift in the relationship between the volunteers at the ministry and the people who received meals due to their switch from all in-person to mostly carry-out. Although they continue to make connections with the people they serve, she said, there is a difference in the atmosphere since the pandemic started.
“This past year has created lots of challenges on all fronts, as far as the way we go about serving our meals. It has affected the connection that we have with our people that come in. They would sit and visit and talk, and we would do a devotion at noon and give away gifts,” Bailey said. “It was a good atmosphere, but in this last year, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, we were not even allowed to have people come inside. We had to just serve them at the door or they could come inside and take it to go, but they couldn’t come in and eat. It just caused a different feel in that relationship.”
Today, although many restrictions have lifted, Bailey said, many people they serve continue to take their meals to-go and the community atmosphere during their free meal days has not quite returned yet.
“I think people are afraid, even though after some of the restrictions were lifted and we could allow people to come in and eat as long as they’re socially distanced inside,” Bailey said. “We have a few that do that, but the vast majority still take their food to-go. They’ve gotten in the habit of taking it to-go, but I think it’s also the fear. People maybe want to avoid crowds, maybe avoid restaurants and maybe avoid community kitchens, as far as sitting around and eating. It’s more in and out quickly. I think the fear of the pandemic is responsible for a lot of that.”
When the pandemic began, Dotson said, there were many people who came to receive their services who had never done so before. She said those people needed help after they were laid off.
“You wouldn’t believe the people who work and who have good salaries that were laid off — a JC Penney employee, restaurant employees. There’s a lot of shame when they come to our doors,” Dotson said. “So many people had complaints with the unemployment system, and it was hard for them to come and ask us for help because they’re not used to asking for anything. You don’t know their situation so all of our staff has been well-trained to never cast judgment and never look down on anybody.”
Dotson noted that some people also came to them for help because they had to quarantine for 14 days and were unable to work.
“Quarantine affected so many just because they couldn’t work so they couldn’t get a paycheck,” she said.
One of the challenges that non-profit organizations — like the Dream Center, for example — have faced this past year of the pandemic is funding. Dotson explained that COVID-19 restrictions impacted the organization’s ability to fundraise this past year, since they had to cancel one of their largest fundraiser events. The organization also temporarily could not operate its thrift store for several months, which affected the organization’s revenue for a period of time.
“This past year has been a struggle to say the least. Everything we do is based on fundraising donations. Both of those (fundraisers) are what pushes our year forward. It helps us pay our rent at all of our locations, and it helps us buy our food boxes,” Dotson said. “Having the call for help way up here and then having funds way down here, it was very draining. It was draining to our bank account, but it was also draining just emotionally and mentally because you have all these people at the door saying, ‘I need a food box.’”
Dotson said they have received several grants and generous donations this year from community members who supported their work. She said this helped keep them afloat during the height of the pandemic.
“It was hard to see that our community really needed us, but thankfully, God provided and we were able to step up and answer their call for help,” she said. “We had some very generous donors who came out of the woodwork, and I say that was a God thing. They said, ‘We see what you’re doing. We love what you’re doing. We want to help.’”
During this past year, non-profits like the Dream Center and Grace Community Kitchen have also worked together to help provide one another with supplies in order to help meet the needs of the community. The Dream Center, Dotson said, helped provide clothing to six smaller clothing organizations after receiving a surplus of clothing donations during the pandemic, and the Dream Center has both received and shared supplies with organizations like the Grace Community Kitchen and Thankful Hearts Food Pantry Inc., among others, in order to help them meet their needs.
Although the pandemic has brought pain and isolation to many people, Bailey said, non-profit organizations have needed to “be a light” and help the community during its hour of need in the midst of the pandemic.
“Our role is to provide the basic human needs of people during difficult times. We are to be a bright light in the midst of the darkness of this pandemic,” Bailey said. “There’s so much pain, suffering, isolation, hurt and need, and we can’t begin to touch that, but we can provide a smile and provide a word of encouragement. We can provide a meal, and there are times when we provide other things — whether it’s coats, hats, toboggans, throws, emergency food and other things as well — to try to meet some of the needs as well and to elevate some of the suffering.”
For more information on the East Kentucky Dream Center, call, (606) 766-3434, visit, www.ekdc.info, or visit the “East Kentucky Dream Center” Facebook page. For more information on the Grace Community Kitchen, call, (606) 437-7244, visit, www.gracefellowshippikeville.ky.com, or visit the “Grace Community Kitchen” Facebook page.