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Photos Andy Calvert

On a chilly afternoon in mid-May staff members from the YMCA, Brighter Birthdays, and Restoration Rome gathered with countless volunteers outside of the Restoration Rome headquarters. The mood was jovial as meals, and gift bags were loaded onto the bus serving as the lead vehicle, adorned with signs and streamers that made it apparent a celebration was in order. As the other members of the caravan vigorously decorated their cars, motorcycles, and SUVs with congratulatory swag, elbow bumps replaced hugs. Still, even a pandemic couldn’t kill the vibe of this gathering.

The YMCA of Rome & Floyd County is a part of two federally-funded, state-administered nutrition programs: The Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). These programs, along with other partners like Floyd County School Nutrition, allow the Y to host meal pick up sites across Rome and Floyd County, ensuring that children have healthy, balanced diets along with enrichment opportunities.

At Restoration Rome, meals are provided Monday-Saturday to children in South Rome. That, along with the activities and support they provide for kids in that neighborhood, have formed a strong bond that showed on the faces of everyone involved in the May 12th caravan.

“When COVID-19 hit in mid-March, we still had a couple of months left of our after-school feeding and enrichment program,” says Director of Community Development for the YMCA, Stephanie McElhone. “We never got a chance to say good-bye to our babies this year. We see a lot of them on Mondays and Thursdays when they come to get grab and go meals, but we never got the chance to celebrate the end of the school year and just let them know how much we love them and that we are still here for them. Everyone involved in this is just so excited we found a way to make the end the school year special.”

The pandemic only increased the need for meals, so more than ever, the YMCA, their partners, and the volunteers needed during this crisis. Some of the children they served got their only interaction outside of their household when they came to pick up their meals, so the service went far beyond sustenance. The other entities only bolster the above and beyond the attitude of the program they partner with, and Brighter Birthdays stepped up to the plate when the ball starting rolling on ideas to celebrate the end of the school year.

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“We had great partnerships before COVID, but those have only strengthened during this time,” says McElhone. “We haven’t heard many no’s and have gotten a lot of wonderful yes’s from the people who serve this community. Brighter Birthdays is such a wonderful organization and due to the pandemic, they had a surplus of their gift bags that they couldn’t give out, so they allowed us to give them to the children we serve. It allowed us to make this a special good-bye to the school year.”

With schools shutting down, demand for meals grew from hundreds to thousands, and while many families in need were within walking or driving distance, many didn’t have the means to travel to the pick-up site. So in turn, the bus purchased for the program by the Community Foundation and International paper in 2017, had its seats removed to create storage space for deliveries.

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“We may not be able to take children anywhere right now, but without the seats, we can fit 5000 meals on board,” says McElhone. “That allows us to get these meals to those who can’t come to us, and today, it’s going to be a little more festive than usual.”

Cristin Warden of Brighter Birthdays.

“We primarily work through the schools and The Boys and Girls Club to get our bags out to children on their birthdays, so our operations were shut down abruptly,” says Brighter Birthdays Founder Cristin Warden. “We had 400 backpacks on hand that we wanted to get out somehow. So we pulled out the birthday supplies, and what was left is a super fun summer pack. It’s funny because Stephanie and I pretty much had the same idea at the same time. She called to ask if we would donate the bags on the day of our board meeting where we were discussing how to get them out. So it worked out perfectly, and we are excited that the bags will be distributed at several locations, including this one over the next few weeks.”

The bags have items like frisbees, books, school supplies, water bottles, stuffed animals, snacks, and other toys. Items that will undoubtedly bring smiles to the children that receive them along with the meals to fill their bellies.

While the mission to serve will continue long after the coronavirus pandemic is gone, the ability to cater to communities across Rome and Floyd County during this time is a product of entities working together for a common goal. That culture of cooperation was already in place and served as the foundation for the serving the Restoration Rome’s neighbors in South Rome.

“We saw the need here in South Rome because the kids were walking up and knocking on our door,” says Restoration Rome Program Co-Founder, Mary Margaret Mauer. “It was three years ago that we called the YMCA to see if they could help and within 2-weeks they were feeding 75-85 children a day at this site. That evolved into after-school programming that allowed the kids to interact with caring adults and their peers in a safe environment, and it just continues to grow and impact the community. Today is just another example of what all these wonderful people can do when they come together.”