When the world shut down, Westwood created a safety net for kids and families in need

Abe Brandyberry worked in the corporate world for 13 years, handling customer service and logistics for a major food processor in Fairfield. However, he has always had a deep interest in serving vulnerable communities.

In 2007, he started a not-for-profit organization working out of a small storefront church in Northside serving low-income residents. That became his second full-time job, as he kept his day job at Koch Foods and worked to build his social service organization, Cincinnati Urban Promise.

As Cincinnati Urban Promise grew, he bought an old church in Northside to house it and then, in 2015, was given a former nursing home in Westwood, a much larger space to run the charity that now included a youth mentoring program, a preschool, a summer enrichment program, and a food pantry.

When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in March and everything shut down, the old nursing home in Westwood became ground zero for a major effort to deliver food to those in need, an effort that was coordinated among several social service organizations in the neighborhood.

They were able to quickly pull together their efforts, share information, create a clearinghouse, and put the power of the community to work to swiftly get help where it was needed. In doing so, they created an alliance and a template for working together again in the next crisis.

“The early days of that feel like a whirlwind,” Brandyberry says. “When everything got shut down, we were trying to figure out where the needs were.”

Chief among those needs as the schools closed were the Westwood children who relied on the free and reduced lunch programs at their schools for sustenance.

“There was a lot of concern about our kids getting access to food because so many of them relied on the meals they got while they were at school,” Brandyberry says.

About 29% of the people in Westwood — Cincinnati’s largest neighborhood with more than 25,000 residents — are living at or below the poverty level. Its schools serve a higher percentage of their students with free or reduced-price lunches than the state average. At Westwood Elementary for example, nearly all the students are eligible for free lunches.

With such a rapidly emerging need, there was little time for meetings (even virtual ones), emails, proposals, and pilot projects. Quick response was necessary to serve those who needed it, and to set up a pipeline to keep the assistance coming.

“When COVID hit, I knew it was going to create a crisis for our most vulnerable populations,” says Sarah Beach, the community outreach team leader at Westwood United Methodist Church and the director of My Neighbor’s Place, which runs a food pantry and other services at the church.

“I wanted to put together chains of communication so we could all pull together as a neighborhood and as a community,” she says.

Beach created a central database to coordinate the many groups and people working to serve the neighborhood: pastors; nurses and mental health leaders; civic groups like Westwood Works; nonprofits such as Cincinnati Urban Promise; schools like Westwood Elementary; churches; and food pantries, including Vineyard Westside, WestFed Pantry, and Saint Martin’s. A University of Cincinnati masters of social work student put together a list of community resources.

Brandyberry used his connections at Koch Foods and other providers to get pallets of food donated. The Cincinnati Urban Promise building became the warehouse to stage and store the food in its walk-in freezers and refrigerators.

“We were getting large shipments of food from different groups and corporations,” Beach says. “We created a tracking and delivery system. When we got a big delivery, we would divide and conquer it among the food pantries.”

Task forces were created to handle food, safety, education, mental health, and logistics. Along with the deliveries, Cincinnati Urban Promise sent activities for children who had been enrolled in its enrichment programs.

Volunteers organized by Westwood Works were put to service creating and delivering meal boxes, as the pantries could not be open due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

“Basically, we were making our food pantry mobile,” Brandyberry says.

Through their quick work, organization, and collaboration, the organizations were able to feed about 500 people a week during the height of the shutdown, Brandyberry estimates.

The churches and agencies didn’t create this collaboration from scratch. That would have taken too long. They were able to pull together largely because they had worked together in the past and had established relationships they could build on.

“None of that would have been possible if we didn’t already have strong ties with churches, schools, and nonprofits,” Beach says.

Asset maps of community services in Westwood and nearby neighborhoods already existed that Beach and others were able to work from. By March 23, they had created a bank of resources and ideas for maintaining community connections that could be used by churches, social service organizations, schools, and others. It included safety guidelines for volunteers and delivery people.

“When all this happened, it was very natural for us to get our heads together and say what are we going to do about this and what are the issues we are facing and how can we come together to work on them,” Brandyberry says.

The effort they started is still working, eight months into the pandemic.

On a recent afternoon, Brandyberry was picking up 350 cases of meal boxes from the Farmers to Families federal program. The boxes contained produce, meat, and dairy products, and were to be distributed to nearby organizations, including Westwood Third Presbyterian Church, Camp Washington United Church of Christ, and the Villages of Roll Hill public housing complex.

The connections and collaborations have been established, formalized, and put into practice, creating a ready-made template for action if another disaster strikes.

“We have this chain of communication so all of the food pantries are more able to talk to each other and all the mental health leaders in Westwood have this connection now,” Beach says. “And the churches and clergy have this chain. If something happens, we could pull together. It’s almost like a safety net.”

The On The Ground: Westwood feature series is made possible with support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr. / U. S. Bank Foundation.

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.