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United Way Helps CCS Community Kitchen Meet Growing Demand During Pandemic

Before March 13, 2020, Catholic Community Services (CCS)was serving between 8,000 and 9,000 meals per month through its Community Kitchen program. With just one full-time employee, the program relied heavily on its 680 volunteers from over 30 churches and community groups, many of them retired. 

Then the pandemic hit. Demand for meals exploded up to 20,000 per month just as the volunteer base shrunk to only 30 people. The small team also had to coordinate meals for off-site distribution at homeless encampments around Thurston County, drop-offs for ‘stay at home’ residents, and individually wrapped breakfasts, lunches and dinners for people in quarantine.

“It was one day at a time,” says Terrell ‘Turtle’ Mizell, CCS Kitchen Coordinator. “For the off-site locations, I created a menu of seven different meals that were rotated every week to make it easy while I was producing the onsite lunches and dinners.” Mizell and Community Involvement Coordinator Peter Epperson worked twelve-hour days for weeks to meet the need. 

Some relief came from the City of Olympia which supplied rotating staff members as support each week. Funding from United Way allowed CCS to hire six employees and continue providing meals. “United Way brings the community together to harness assets and advance our efforts, says Epperson. “Our budget for buying food and supplies went from $500 per week to $2,000. That wouldn’t have happened without United Way’s support.” 

At one point, a supply chain disruption jeopardized the program. United Way Executive Director Chris Wells contacted CCS to find out what the organization needed so that operations wouldn’t suffer. “They gave us $7,000,” Mizell explains. “I went on a shopping spree and bought meat and all the other things that we needed to keep serving nutritious meals.” 

Zack Thompson got to see the impact of those meals while distributing approximately 200 per day to some of the larger homeless camps in the region as the CCS Homeless Services Kitchen Lead. The experience was eye-opening, he says. “I got to build amazing relationships with the people I served, and cross paths with people doing incredible work. It was inspiring to see the work that so many do in our community.” 

Thompson’s mother Jennifer Thompson is a former United Way employee who ran the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). Now, she volunteers at the community kitchen. Having been on both sides of the equation, she knows the value of having a streamlined path for volunteers to find meaningful work, she says. “It’s hard to know where to go when you’re retired. People are looking for a new purpose and something to feed their souls. United Way is an extremely valuable conduit for our community to make those connections.”