No government, no military contingent, no church or any other private organization had ever attempted what Palm Coast government and Parkview Church did Saturday: the distribution of 5,000 boxes packed with a week’s worth of groceries, and thousands of additional boxes of snacks and Easter candy, for families that streamed through the two drop locations.
But the alliance of church and state–or city state–did just that between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., clearing canyons of brown boxes from road to vehicle trunks and completing what amounted to the largest single-day food aid operation in the city’s or county’s history: What the city dubbed Feed Palm Coast raised $100,000 and drew on the work of hundreds of volunteers and city employees, and on the immeasurable: the solidarity of a community humbly answering a need that at times was paid with the tears of recipients.
An $18,000 contribution from residents of Hammock Dunes illustrated how the effort transcended municipal boundaries, as so much else has during the coronavirus emergency. (Hammock Dunes Owners Association President Ralph Dumke described the contribution as support from “neighbors to everyone in Palm Coast.”)
Some residents may have been apprehensive about getting their boxes without waiting half the day in line: a big food drop a couple of weeks ago at Flagler Palm Coast High School, hurriedly organized by the county after the county got a last-minute opportunity to bring the aid to Flagler, had been a bit chaotic and left some residents unsatisfied, though the timing was out of the county’s control.
The apprehension was evident in an email Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland got half-way through Saturday. “This morning, my husband and I chose to pack our 5 kids up and head out to the food drive at 9:25am, totally prepared for an unorganized shit-show,” the family’s matriarch wrote Holland, “but we were grateful for the opportunity! We told the kids to pack their activity clip boards and water bottles. My husband and I poured fresh cups of coffee, took a minute to woosaw before hopping in the van and settling in to what could potentially be a couple hours. We live in the “P” section so we headed out to the city hall location.”
As mother and father drove to City Hall, they prepared their children for what was ahead, wanting them to understand all the intricacies of the fund-raising drive, its purpose, what goes into pulling an effort of that magnitude in less than two weeks. They explained to them that they might have to be in the van a while.
It turned out to be quite different than what the family had expected, starting with the acoustic musicians Flagler Broadcasting had arranged at the arrival point, before volunteers took over traffic control. “As we pulled up and saw the Eclipse Studio guys with the acoustic musician set up, I teared up,” the mother continued in her email to Holland. “Needless to say, we were greeted by traffic directors and volunteers with kindness and smiles. We drove right in and were pulling out to head back home at 9:42am!! In total awe, I held back a full on cry and pointed out to my family all the amazing things I recognized. Our ten year old son Reef looked at us and said, ‘I noticed everything you just said! All I can say is that the vibes in that were everything right!’ That pretty much summed it up for our family. I couldn’t have said it better.”
So it was. Traffic never backed up much at the City Hall location, flowing in two rows and batches of up to 20 vehicles at a time to a stretch of road in front of City Hall where volunteers, including several county and city officials and the sheriff, had lined up along the mountains of boxes, prepared to fill trunks. It was sunny and a bit warm but not intolerably so, and Walmart had not only donated all the Easter candy for distribution but also provided pallets of water for the volunteers, while Bruster’s Ice Cream and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs donated all the food for the crews.
“It’s a great plan, it’s been well designed,” Sheriff Rick Staly, volunteering on the morning shift alongside county commissioners and city council members, said. “Cmdr. Williams, our traffic unit did a great job working with the city in coming up with the best traffic flow so it’s really moving very, very well, and I think that’s why we don’t have the back-ups that we’ve seen in past events.” He said deputies normally assigned to the courthouse, school resource deputies and members of the traffic unit were all working at food distribution sites.
As were all volunteers–who’d been temp-checked and gloved when they arrived–Holland wore her mask and a bright red Feed Palm Coast shirt designed for the occasion and provided by Parkview Church.
“Palm Coast never ceases to amaze me,” Holland said when the distribution was in its second hour. “Between our organization that provides essential city services to so many of our residents that have stepped up and have been working hard all week in an effort to make sure these boxes were sorted and done correctly, to the generous contributions of so many of our residents, it’s quite inspirational.”
Footage of Feed Palm Coast Provided by the City:
She spoke to the rhythm of trunks shutting on the fresh cargo and the applause of volunteers as vehicles drove in, stopped, exchanged appropriately-distanced greetings and gratefulness, then drove off. It was all happening almost simultaneously with two other sizable food drops–one at Education Way, where Pastor Charles Silano’s Grace Community Food Pantry distributes food to hundreds of families every Saturday and Sunday morning, and, in early afternoon, in Flagler Beach, where Mayor Linda Provencher was leading a similar effort with food provided by Silano.
“I was overwhelmed with the amount of food Pastor Silano brought us,” Provencher said today. “We delivered in Flagler Beach close to 100 meals to seniors and those without cars. We figured we had at least 200 cars come in for pick up. Obviously not all were Flagler Beach residents, but we were handing out to anyone.” Provencher has no doubt the volume would have been higher had the food drop not taken place simultaneously with Palm Coast’s, and the earlier one on Education Way. “I had several residents call me from Palm Coast and Bunnell asking for delivery, so I’ve given their info to Milissa and Catherine,who have said they would get something to them this week.”
Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson had teamed up with Silano last week for a food drop in her city. She joined Holland at the City Hall location Saturday as one of the volunteers. “We had about 500 people that came through, then we had all this food left over,” Robinson said of the Bunnell drop. “Pastor Silano brought us the works. We had meat, we had fresh fruit and vegetables, you could smell the onions, the apples, and so we actually toured through Bunnell to the retirement communities and Project Warm and the Family Life Center–all these places that they didn’t come, and we took food to them. So it was very rewarding for people to get the food in Bunnell that we felt like they needed, and they were so grateful.”
Robinson described a typical interaction with a family on Saturday: “There was a lady who came through, we filled her truck with food, and I went back to thank her, and she’s bawling,” Robinson said, “she’s crying, because she’s so grateful and appreciative, and it just–it moves me, you know? So I was so grateful with what God has blessed me with, but I’m also appreciative and blessed that I could come out and be a part of something that’s much bigger than me, and I love that, and I appreciate so much what Mayor Holland does for her community, and for the community at large.”
Provencher, Robinson and Holland have a very close working relationship and tend to reinforce each other’s initiatives, though lately Holland has been overtiming all those around her. “She takes her crazy ideas and calls us up and says, what do you think about this?” Robinson said. “And we’re like, yeah, let’s do this thing. So it’s been wonderful.”
Wonderful, if unfortunate: the celebratory atmosphere risked at times obscuring the reason for the food distribution: the most calamitous economic downturn since the Great Depression, with 30 million Americans out of work at last count, millions more expected, and an economic slump with a very uncertain expiration date.
“We do need to do more to make sure that people that are here have ways of getting what they need,” Bob Cuff, one of the Palm Coast council members volunteering–as was Eddie Branquinho–said. “People are opposed to handouts. Sometimes that’s the only way you can do it. But this is great to see this, and I hope we can do more. I was glad to hear they were taking Pastor Silano’s advice on logistics and expertise. There are people who have been doing this for years in town, but it’s always been kind of under the radar. I hope this brings attention to the problem, and it isn’t just–OK, the emergency is over, we can all go back to looking out for Number One and not worry about anybody else.”
County Commissioner Donald O’Brien stressed that point. The emergency as families will feel it, in his view, is just beginning. “This is the start of it from the social services side, because we had some stimulus money come into the community, some of the unemployment checks are arriving, but that’s not sustainable money,” O’Brien said. “I think we’re going to be looking at structural changes in the economy and permanent job loss in some cases. So you don’t change that overnight. That’s going to create more need for these kinds of events and activities, and the community really staying and rallying together.”
Never one for the limelight, O’Brien said he wasn’t interested in the photo-ops. “We’re not the difference-makers. Everybody out here is the difference maker,” he said. “But we do have to show leadership, and because we do have the ability to get our message out, which hopefully that’s what you guys are helping us with, is to get that out to the broad community, and hopefully that will create even more folks wanting to help.” (O’Brien was not aware, as he spoke, that the county’s public information office, following County Administrator Jerry Cameron’s order, last week removed FlaglerLive from its media distribution list out of retaliation over articles Cameron didn’t like.)
In the shadows of compassion, the judgments are almost inevitable. Maybe it was an isolated statement, but one of the volunteers on the line at one point remarked about the “late-model” and “expensive” truck that had just gone through the line–the sort of judgment common on social media as residents, sitting behind glassy computer screens, cast stones at those seeking aid.
O’Brien may have heard a similar judgment. He was certainly aware of them. He had a message for those casting them.
“Even if you don’t help, just be respectful and understand that your neighbor may be going through things, so be a little kinder and really try to understand the situation, and have a paradigm shift of maybe how you view things,” O’Brien said. “Example: you see some of the cars come through here, and you see a late-model car. But you know, if you’ve done this before, and I have, you quickly learn that that doesn’t matter because usually the car is the last thing to go, because if you lose your job, or if you have a job, you still need to get there. So it doesn’t matter what the cars look like. That’s a surface thing, and you can’t judge somebody by that. That’s what I’m talking about–a paradigm shift.”