WATERTOWN — In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic halting many operations around the world, the Urban Mission had no choice but to close its Impossible Dream Thrift Store on St. Patrick’s Day, thereby temporarily shutting the door on its largest source of independent income.
With demand for the Mission’s services at a high and funding decreased due to the closure, Peter Schmitt, a member of the First Presbyterian Church of Watertown, presented Urban Mission Executive Director Dawn Cole with a large check for $5,000 Tuesday afternoon — a much needed donation to the organization in the face of the pandemic.
These funds are authorized by Session of First Presbyterian, a mixture of foundation funds and support from church members. According to Mr. Schmitt, the purpose of the donation is to maximize the potential of the Urban Mission and the amount of food it can purchase to increase outreach and impact in the community.
“The closure of Impossible Dream came with several layoffs, so that was a very challenging time,” Ms. Cole said. “Not more than 24 hours went by when we got a call from First Presbyterian asking what they could do and we talked about how, in terms of food — and that’s where the biggest need is now, we can do more with a single dollar than somebody who is going to the grocery store.”
In an effort to observe social distancing while still providing needed meal services, the Mission turned to a drive thru form of food pickup on Monday as opposed to just limiting the number of people in the mission at any given time like it was doing last week.
Big signs on the door of the Mission show the number to call when someone comes to pick up food for their family. Once they call, Mission staff take down some basic information like the size of their family, and get a sense of the needs of the family because they’re able to customize the boxes by the specific needs of the family.
“There’s a big toilet paper shortage and we happen to be blessed with some toilet paper right now so we can put together personal care items — soap, baby wipes, formula, diapers,” Ms. Cole said. “And based on their needs, we can tailor the food package to them.”
Right now, the Mission is giving out a five-day supply of food for families each time they come to pick up provisions. On staff right now are less than 10 Mission workers and two committed volunteers bringing the food packages to visitors waiting outside.
According to Ms. Cole, numbers from the food pantry last year indicate that the average cost to provide a meal is $1.54, so she is encouraging community members as they reach out not to take a risk and go to the grocery store and buy things, but make a donation if they’re able to do so, because the Mission can do more with that thanks to its relationship with the Food Bank of Central New York.
“The need is so great that now we’re going to start opening on Saturdays starting this week,” Ms. Cole said. “That was the staff’s idea, they’re working about as hard as a small group of people can work and they came to me yesterday and said, ‘we’ve got to do more.’”
In the wake of layoffs due to the virus sweeping the nation and globe, the need for food has spiked in the area. Normally the Mission serves an average of 557 families per month, but just last week it served 294 families — over half of a month’s worth of business in the space of one week.
According to Ms. Cole, 26 percent of those are brand new to the pantry, comprised of the recently displaced workers from the service industry and other businesses who have lost their jobs.
Ms. Cole shared that the Mission is also working with the Office for the Aging whenever possible to deliver meal packages to the elderly.
“To spend $5,000 at the food bank gives you a lot of food, it’s tremendous,” she said. “It means the world and it validates what we’re doing; it means everything that a partner like First Presbyterian gets it — they know we’re here in the trenches doing what we can.”