Jill Buckley, executive director of Stewpot Community Services, recently talked with Sun Staff Writer Christo Hicks about plans for Thanksgiving and how COVID-19 has affected their services. Stewpot is a local nonprofit organization offering services to people in need including providing a Thanksgiving meal. The organization is fueled by volunteers and donations. In addition to a Thanksgiving meal, Stewpot also provides lunch seven days a week, 365 days a year at their community kitchen. Buckley has been the director of the nonprofit for four years now.
Will the Thanksgiving meal be served this year?
“Yes. There will be a Thanksgiving meal served this year.”
With COVID regulations in play, what will Thanksgiving look like?
“Well, since March, when the pandemic started, we have been serving plates to go. We will have our annual Thanksgiving meal, but it won’t be in person. For safety reasons, we will serve Thanksgiving in a drive-thru fashion, and just place the food in our guest’s trunk. This helps people feel safer. We have members who normally come in and get a meal. We also give out Thanksgiving baskets so people can enjoy their meals in privacy with their loved ones. Normally, we distribute 350 baskets at Thanksgiving and at Christmas. But this year there are 800 families signed up to receive a basket, for both holidays.”
What about the homeless?
“We are open for lunch 365 days a year, and that includes Thanksgiving and Christmas. Unfortunately, we do not have a way to pick people up to bring them here for meals. However, many churches and individuals will visit parks and street corners all over Jackson on Thanksgiving day, delivering food to folks to who can’t make it to Stewpot. So, Stewpot is only part of a much larger effort to care for neighbors on holidays.”
Has there been an increase in people who use Stewpot this year?
“We are busier this year in terms of need, but we don’t have as many volunteers as we need for special projects. We are spread thin. The demand for non-perishables is up and I think that’s due to the domino effect from COVID. More households are experiencing more needs.”
Who is your clientele?
“We serve people who are on a limited income and many of them are senior citizens. They use us to help them get through the month without running out of food. We are not their only source of food, just one of several.”
What is the profile of a household that Stewpot serves?
“The common threads would be limited income, senior citizens taking care of their family, people who live on disability and people who just don’t make it all the way through the month with food.”
Have there been volunteers at all this year?
“Yes. And we do have volunteers lined up for Thanksgiving. But, it has been limited by COVID. This year, the Thanksgiving meal will look a lot different. We usually have 60 plus volunteers but this year we can only take as many as we need to serve the food. We’ve had to limit the number of volunteers we can take since the end of March. We are trying everything we know to keep people as safe as we can.”
Are there other ways to help besides volunteering?
“Yes, you can donate. We are a nonprofit and we don’t serve it until we have it. But, this year we have had extraordinary community support. Lots of people around our state recognize the struggle our community members are facing. People have responded in a generous way.”
How do you see COVID affecting Stewpot?
“I worry about fatigue, physical and mental fatigue caused by COVID. It worries me because so much need is at our doorstep now. I am particularly concerned about the people who volunteer with us not being in good emotional states. I see COVID effecting our mental health.”
How has COVID affected your employee’s mental health?
Like everyone else, we are all feeling the strain, but we are also emphasizing the need for self-care for our staff. However, we are also energized by the ways we have been able to meet the increased need, which we couldn’t do without our donors and supporters.’
Where do volunteers come from?
“Right now, our volunteers come from congregations, civic groups, schools, and businesses, even though the numbers of volunteers we see daily has decreased dramatically. We have limited the number of volunteers out of an abundance of caution. That’s been hard, because our volunteers feel like family, and because we are only able to fulfill part of our mission at this time. Stewpot is about neighbors helping neighbors, and it feels like we are missing half of our heart.”
What is the profile of a volunteer?
There is no standard profile for a volunteer. We have so many ways for people to contribute their time and talents. Volunteers may range from 5 years old to 95 years old! For now, though, our volunteers are mostly people who are not in high-risk groups.
Can you tell us a little history of Stewpot?
Stewpot was started in 1981 by seven Jackson congregations looking for more comprehensive, collaborative ways to meet the needs of their neighbors.