8 Southerners Making a Difference in Their Communities
We're celebrating those who served their communities in extraordinary ways during the COVID-19 crisis.
When he first set out to create an organization to support Atlanta’s homeless community, Terence Lester didn’t want to assume anything about the experience. So he lived it himself, moving onto the streets in December 2013 to better understand the needs of people enduring homelessness. His experiences during that month have driven every element of his nonprofit, Love Beyond Walls. “We’re walking with people, not for people,” he explains. “We’re not only trying to meet those basic necessities right now, but we’re also forging relationships to be the guides and encouragers of people on their own journeys.” It’s this proximity that has given Lester’s team a unique ability to meet needs as they arise. He says that as COVID-19 ramped up, those in the homeless community voiced fears and concerns about catching the virus and not having places to wash their hands. So Lester started Love Sinks In, a campaign to install portable handwashing stations in Atlanta and beyond. By the end of August, there were stations in 50 cities and 30 states. “There was this population of people across the U.S. who were being forgotten, and we wanted to ensure that they weren’t,” he says.
Lindsey Ofcacek and Edward Lee
When COVID-19 forced restaurants to close their doors in March, The LEE Initiative cofounders Lindsey Ofcacek and chef Edward Lee looked at their resources. “We had people we didn’t want to lay off, and we had food,” says Ofcacek. “We knew we could feed our community and that a lot of people were going to need it.” They launched a relief kitchen in one of Lee’s Louisville restaurants. With the help of Maker’s Mark, their efforts grew into the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, totaling 19 partner restaurants that together served more than 400,000 meals. They wanted to support small farms too. So they founded the Restaurant Reboot Relief Program, also in partnership with Maker’s Mark, pledging at least $1 million to buy food from sustainable growers in 16 regions. Independent restaurants and small farms are two sides of the same house, says Lee: “Without them...there’s no way for us to be proud of our work.” And in mid-June, they launched the Regrow program, a grant fund to help Kentucky restaurants with reopening costs. “Every time we introduce a program, the outpouring from the community is so abundant,” says Lee. “We know we’re making a difference. It just gives us more fuel to keep going.”
Like many teachers, Ariana Tabaku suspected she’d face hurdles in her virtual classroom. “I knew that there were limited resources at home,” she says. “I work in a school where we get state funding and free or reduced-price lunches for nearly 90% of the population.” What she didn’t expect was that most students didn’t have internet at home, and while the school offered tablets, many parents could not miss work to sign them out. So she raised money to purchase 20 Chromebooks for the children and delivered them to their homes, with apps pre-downloaded. But there was another challenge: Most of her students are newcomers to the U.S., so English is their second language. She talked to parents on the phone and created YouTube tutorials (with help from her Spanish-speaking boyfriend) for them too. “You have to build the curriculum around your students,” says Tabaku. “But you also need to connect with parents. If you show that you care, there are so many barriers you can break down.”
Mary Margaret Pettway and Mary McCarthy
Gee’s Bend, Alabama
The Gee’s Bend quilters have long been known for sewing fabric into beautiful fine art, but when the pandemic reared its head, Mary Margaret Pettway (on left) and Mary McCarthy took to smaller objets d’art. “We had a copious amount of cloth from one company and thought, ‘Oh, these would make great masks,’ ” says McCarthy. So they partnered with the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, of which Pettway is board chair, to hire six more quilters and gather materials to make 600 masks—enough for their entire community. They delivered them by hand, and also included fact sheets about COVID-19 as well as info about the new Gee’s Bend Resource Center (funded by Souls Grown Deep Foundation), which provides free internet access and help with census participation. Now that their neighbors are covered, they’re sewing masks for folks as far away as New York. “I had a call Sunday asking for 20 masks,” says Pettway. “So I sat down and made them.”
Devin De Wulf
New Orleans, Louisiana
As the founder of the Mardi Gras Krewe of Red Beans, Devin De Wulf knows how to mobilize a crowd. Just one day after his wife, who’s a doctor, told him how some cookies had boosted morale at her hospital, De Wulf started Feed the Front Line NOLA. With crowdsourced donations, he and his krewe purchased meals from local restaurants to be delivered to area hospitals by out-of-work artists and musicians they’d hired. By the program’s end on May 3, Feed the Front Line had raised more than $1 million. All the while, De Wulf was frequently checking in on the elders who have participated in Mardi Gras parades for years. “These men are cultural icons for New Orleans,” he says. In order to thank them for their many contributions, he started Feed the Second Line NOLA, a meal-and-grocery delivery service that cares for the city’s vibrant older leaders in a dignified way. “We’re showing love to our city through food, which is a very New Orleans way to go about things,” De Wulf says.
With all eyes on coronavirus numbers in cities like New York and Seattle, it seemed impossible that Albany, Georgia (population about 72,000), would find itself in the eye of the storm. But in mid-March, this city earned an alarming accolade, becoming a spot with one of the country’s largest outbreaks of COVID-19 cases per capita. Mandy Hall, a nurse and the director of emergency services at Albany’s Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, experienced it firsthand. “It was overwhelming,” says Hall. “We never anticipated that we would be touched so quickly.” Procedures changed daily as case numbers continued to climb, but the resilient spirits of fellow hospital staffers gave Hall hope. “Not one of them hesitated,” she says. “They wanted to be at work caring for patients; they wanted to be on the front lines. I’ve never been prouder to represent a group of people—ever.”