At the Rogers Road Community Center, the Sheriff’s Office was setting up its tent, unwinding some electrical equipment, and putting out a popcorn machine in the concrete drive in front. The Center sits square in the midst of three or four small connected roads of brick ranches, singlewides, and, along the farthest street, a row of newer cottages. Together they have been known, for who knows how many decades, as the Rogers Road Neighborhood. Around them, here and there a forgotten animal shed lingers under overgrown trees, a reminder of the neighborhood’s roots. It’s a close-knit community of people who care for one another. That’s where the Rogers Road Community Center comes in, the place where care is central to everybody, and that’s where Rosie Caldwell, who directs it, is central to it all.[Read more…]
Each month at the PORCH sort, we who can volunteer to show up at the gathering and distributions sites around the city to handle the many tasks of helping get food to people in need. Most have been volunteering faithfully for PORCH for a long time; many are stalwart PORCH collectors in their neighborhoods. New volunteers are welcomed each time, brought in by the enthusiasm of their neighbors. Behind the scenes, as well, are volunteers we don’t often see, except in the summer months when school is out and young people from all over the area come to the sorts.
Did you know that there is a recognized school activity for high school students called PORCH Club? Though it has a faculty sponsor, it’s organized by students, planned and coordinated by students, and full of the energy that the young have when there is a social problem to be solved. PORCH is lucky to have them.
Norman Xie, a rising senior at East Chapel Hill High School, thought it would be interesting to see what PORCH was about. He’d worked some for another nutrition program in Carrboro, so he already had an idea of the need for supporting families that aren’t as fortunate. He grew up in Chapel Hill, and bikes everywhere. Still, PORCH has managed to teach him a lot about its different communities and how he can connect with them. “You know?” he says, “here I feel like I’m helping people [he hesitates a minute finding the right words]… and that, that gives meaning to what I’m doing.” Clearly, Norman is a young man who knows inherently what matters.
Meanwhile, he’s applying for colleges (he is hoping to find himself at UNC-Chapel Hill, studying biology for medical school later on) and going on with his own activities, like ultimate Frisbee. “I play the piano, too,” he mentions, explaining that he is not only taking lessons but playing in venues once in a while. There isn’t yet a PORCH club at his school, so he wants to get one started this year.
Enter Sydney Runkle, from Chapel Hill High School, who began her PORCH activities as a freshman (she’s a rising junior now). “I was looking for volunteer opportunities,” she says, especially in what she calls “human security”. Wow. That’s quite an insightful way of expressing what a good community affords all its people: a safe place to live, food for nourishment, education, work, shared resources. PORCH appeared quickly in her view.
As a sophomore, she became the coordinator of PORCH Club at CHHS. There are about 50 students involved, she counts, and about 20 consistent participants, which she’s hoping this year to raise to the whole 50. Sydney, you can tell, has the kind of organization skills in her blood that the founders of PORCH run in theirs. The club gets together every few weeks for a lunchtime meeting, where she introduces PORCH, runs through logistics for the next events, gathers ideas, and signs up new members. Activities are as much fun as they are helpful: between sort months, they make cheerful holiday cards to tuck into the bags of nonperishable food, bake cookies to distribute to kids in the schools…. “It meant a lot to me to be able to distribute them myself this time”…and participate in the snack drive for children.
This year, she has plans to get the club started on letter-writing campaigns to city, state and national official urging them to recognize the issues of hunger and security, locally and nationally.
So, what is the appeal of PORCH club to students? Sydney thinks that helping hunger relief among the people who live around you is the main draw. She recruits volunteers from friends, parents, and friends of friends. Some students join for volunteer credits, but very soon they see the importance of what they are doing. It’s not difficult to see that Sydney is a leader in the best sense of the word. She never forgets the needs of the people she is working for, and she sees the possibilities in others to make solutions possible. Those values are evident when she speaks about what motivates her.
PORCH, she says, has taught her about community. “Those days I get to help PORCH are my favorite times of the month. Everyone is so welcoming, everyone works together so well. Most of all, it’s eye-opening…enlightening…to know there is a real way you can help people.”
It’s a message both Norman and Sydney hope their elders among us will spread to their children and grandchildren, by word and example. It’s already obvious, though, that PORCH’s future is in good hands.
Rachel Victoria Mills
“It’s all a matter of priorities,” Helen Johnson relates to me, the way we think of social needs.
A friend in Sweden drove that point home to her a few years ago when they were discussing care for people young and old, and the difference in our two countries’ approaches. Helen quickly translates that into the issue before us at PORCH: how to feed the many children, even in this fairly wealthy area, who are food-insecure. Which means, simply, that they don’t know where another meal will come from. “25%!” she says. “It’s shameful.”
Helen has been a PORCH volunteer since she was a mentor with CHCCS’ Blue Ribbon program. The girl she befriended had a single mom with four kids, and Helen quickly learned from them what it meant to have to depend on food from others. “Of all the area resources, PORCH was the best,” Helen remembers the mom telling her. “Otherwise, she waited in line for hours for very little.” That nudged Helen into finding out more about PORCH and lending them her years of dedicated service from the Roosevelt Drive neighborhood. Though she volunteers in other places, politically and socially, PORCH is one of the highlights of her time, because at the end of the day, she can see exactly the good that comes of it.
She also thinks that Christine, Debbie and Susan are extraordinary women who should be recognized much more widely for the outstanding job they have done and continue to do.
But, she adds, “We should be taking care of all the basic needs of all of us as a country…food, shelter, health care. Organizations like PORCH should be more crisis-based.” As it is, she thinks, we who are working so hard to fill empty cupboards “are just letting the country off the hook.”
Helen is passionate about this, and argues that the solution to the problem lies in changing attitudes from the ground up. If people, she maintains, began to think in terms of caring for the whole society instead of just their own lives, widening that tunnel vision both locally and nationally, a lot of
things would change for the better. Even for people who think they have it all.
Along those same lines, PORCH, she thinks, has a lot of potential. “The power of PORCH is offering the experience of finding people you wouldn’t ordinarily meet…other volunteers, recipients, organizers, coming together in a single purpose. PORCH builds community. And building community is the key to building people up, here and in the large nation and world.”
Helen remembers a woman at a sort telling her, “PORCH is my church.” She explained that it gave her spiritual uplift, a sense of communion, and purpose. “We are all hungry for community,” Helen says.
Story submitted to PORCH by Rachel Victoria Mills
Imagine yourself at the grocery, with dinner, lunches and breakfasts to plan for the week. You push the cart along the aisles, but none of the foods you need seem to be available. Instead, there is an odd assortment you don’t quite know how to adapt to the way your family eats. You need healthy fresh ingredients…fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk…but of these there are none or few. You wish that the grocery had thought more about the way its neighbors lived before it stocked its shelves. You wish they had simply asked what you needed, instead of presuming it.
Kerry Sherrill, the social worker at Frank Porter Graham Bilingue School, and before that at Carrboro Elementary…“A great community-minded place!” she enthuses… thinks that helping to feed people ought not to be so one-sided. The needs she sees not only in the families of children at the school, but also as a long-time activist for PORCH, don’t reflect what’s on the shelves at many food pantries in our community. “If we are really going to help people in a culturally competent way,” she says frankly, “that is, a way that gives them dignity and recognizes who they really are as people, we have to understand how they live so that we can truly meet those needs. We have to ask them.”
So, it’s no surprise that Kerry believes that, of all the programs she has worked with, PORCH is the best at reaching out to their clients personally and culturally. According to Susan Romaine, Kerry has herself to thank for leading the program (and trying to convince other organizations) to recognize the ways that different communities think of nutrition. Kerry first met Susan and Debbie Horwitz, two of PORCH’s founders, while they were parents at the school. Kerry began to think about what food really meant to her clients, and when PORCH got started, helped them understand the necessity of including fresh foods. Kerry, for her part, celebrates Susan, Debbie and Christine for their enthusiasm in taking on that important task.
It all comes down to mutual understanding, they agreed. They first explored how the Karen community, refugees from Burma, lived. One of their leaders, Khukhu Juelah, invited them to tour her kitchen to talk about food; they even took pictures of their meals. When you come to know who you are feeding, it’s easier to put aside general (and often mistaken) assumptions, Kerry emphasizes. The women continued with Latino families and refugees from Syria and the Congo. The fresh food component allows families to cook in the healthy and diverse ways their cultures have taught them. While Kerry was explaining that, this writer was thinking: what if, as we filled our bags each month, we, too, could picture the kinds of families who would use those ingredients?
PORCH, Kerry says, gives both volunteers and recipients a way of coming together. “The thing I love most about volunteering at the pickup sites,” she says, smiling broadly, “is seeing those families come in, greeting and engaging us and each other in continuing conversations week by week. It’s a very social atmosphere!” Kerry laughs, “And isn’t volunteering all about the people we meet?”
She often sees the eagerness with which PORCH recipients step up to help in return. One group of parents, whose children were helped by a grant to go on a school trip, volunteered a Saturday to repaint the school buildings in cheerful colors. Another came to landscape and trim. The facelifts cheered everyone. “Children born in refugee camps grow into teenagers who, like their parents, also learn to give back,” she says. Even reluctant teens can be cajoled to help carry bags, push carts, and translate. Having a useful place in a community is essential to all of us, Kerry reminds us, and sharing food can be a vehicle to that…if we show up to the plate, too.
Rachel Victoria Mills, for PORCH
Anna and Scott Falk know a good thing when they hear about it… several things, in fact. In May, their friend and neighbor, Kathryn Chan, called to say that PORCH was in immediate need of help at our monthly sort and delivery, so on the Falks came to lend a hand (or four). Retired lawyers who last August moved down from West Hartford, Connecticut (“What?” Anna says, surprised, “you’ve heard of it?”), they looked south to Chapel Hill and Carrboro and settled in the one place that knew what they needed…neighbors close by, sidewalks and few steps to walk for coffee and a bite. Meadowmont suited them and their twin girls, now students at Culbreth Middle School, just right.[Read more…]
In 2011, when Grace Kirchgessner first learned about PORCH from her sister, Charlotte White, she knew it was a perfect fit. Busy raising two young kids, Max and Olivia, while working full-time at GSK, Grace was looking for a hands-on volunteer activity that the family could do together, on a weekend, without too big of a time commitment. She was especially drawn toward hunger relief. “Even though I’m from Chapel Hill,” explains Grace, “I didn’t realize how much poverty we had here until the kids started school at Ephesus. I was stunned when I first learned that almost half of the kids at Ephesus were receiving free or reduced price meals.”
Laurel Hill’s dedicated neighborhood coordinator, Anne Fogleman, has been with PORCH from the get-go. When Anne first heard about PORCH’s neighborhood food drives some five years ago, she was “fascinated by the very simple process.”
Laura Roque was born in central Mexico, one of five children in her family. Her father, who worked in electronics, died of a heart attack when Laura was very young, forcing her two older brothers to drop out of school so that they could get jobs and provide for the family. Laura and her two sisters also started working at young ages to supplement the family income.
Opened in November 2014, the Rogers Road Community Center runs an after-school program for low-income families in the Rogers Road-Eubanks neighborhood. Anywhere from 20 to 30 students, mostly from nearby Morris Grove Elementary School, visit the after-school program each day.