Outreach meeting COVID-19 challenges

By John Thompson, Johnson City Press; photo via @sigmachietsu Instagram

ELIZABETHTON, Tennessee — There are lots of stories about the way institutions have been damaged and destroyed by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the misfortune has led to the creation of new and resourceful institutions as well, and the Sigma Chi brothers at Eastern Tennessee State University are helping these new community institutions.

Loaves and Fishes Outreach Ministry in Carter County was not created by the pandemic. The organization combined with Rivers Edge Fellowship at 1200 U.S. Highway 19E, since there was a homeless shelter for men there, said Serena Miller, spokeswoman for the outreach ministry. She said it has been feeding the hungry in Carter County for a long time, but a new challenge came with the start of the pandemic.

Miller said the impact of the increase in the hungry hit last March and has only grown since then. Miller also saw a new type of person who was seeking help.

“We were seeing a lot of people who had never needed help before this,” Miller said. People who were without work for the first time in their lives, who did not have any experience of seeking help from a food ministry were in need of help. It was a big and unprecedented challenge for her small organization, but one which they were determined to meet.

The organization met the early challenges, but they kept getting bigger, and so did Miller’s faith. “God always provided the way for us,” Miller said. To illustrate her point, she gave the example of a recent truckload of red potatoes.

“This was a load of 20,000 potatoes sent to a grocery store,” Miller said. When it arrived, the manager refused to accept the order because it was incorrectly packaged in 5-pound bags. Except for that, the potatoes were perfect and at the peak of freshness. The truck driver asked Miller if she would take them. Of course she agreed.

She put out the call for her volunteer unloaders, which included some strong young backs from her son’s fraternity, Sigma Chi at East Tennessee State University, and some trusty labor from the Carter County Jail. As thanks for the help, about 1,500 pounds of the potatoes were donated to the jail.

The rest went to hungry families in Carter County. There are other examples of generous and fortuitous donations of food to Loaves and Fishes, but the biggest amount of the food comes from Second Harvest Food Bank.

Miller said Loaves and Fishes now serves about 100 to 150 people a night and families receive a box of food that will feed the entire family for a couple of weeks. The package includes meats and vegetables. Her workforce of volunteers has grown to meet the needs and now averages about 15 to 20 volunteers each night.

For most people, the pandemic seems to never end, but Miller said she and her staff have not become discouraged because, just as the little boy who owned the original loaves and fishes, they see the growing miracle meeting their needs.