By Megan Alley
A recent distribution of 42 skids of food from Cincinnati’s Freestore Foodbank to Bethel’s Empower Youth organization demonstrates the power of community.
Lori Conley, who co-founded Empower Youth in 2015 and now serves as executive director, recounted the recent delivery that’s made it possible for the organization to continue to provide free weekend meals to some 650 local students.
In mid-February, the food bank reached out to Conley – Empower Youth is a member of the food bank – to let her know that they had a food overage that they were making available to the organization.
“When they have overages, we’re actually allowed to shop their inventory and pick up items for our food program at an incredibly reduced rate,” Conley explained.
In this case, the food bank had exactly what Empower Youth needed for its weekend food backpack program, which provides food for kids in the Bethel-Tate School System, Grant Career Academy and Amelia Elementary school, among other, to take home during the weekends when school meals are unavailable.
“We’re talking Beanie Weenies, trail mix, Snickers bars, all this amazing stuff,” Conley said. “It was a deal that was too good to pass up, I mean it was crazy.”
Empower Youth put in an order for 1,500 boxes, and a day before the order came in, the Freestore Foodbank called Conley to confirm that she knew it was coming on 42 pallets.
“It blew us away,” she said.
Typically, the food bank will make local deliveries to the Red Barn Flea Market in Batavia, and Empower Youth will meet them there to pick up items.
However, this situation played out a little differently, as Conely explained.
“We’ve never done 42 pallets of food,” she said. “It came in two 53-foot semi-trailer trucks.”
Conely and her team “scrambled.” They put out a call to action on social media asking for help with the delivery, and as Conely described it, the response was “amazing.”
Empower Youth was able to round up two U-Haul trucks and four other “big trucks.”
Furthermore, Lowe’s dispatched one of its forklifts, which met the team at the flea market.
“Which was insane,” Connelly quipped. “If [the forklift] wasn’t there, we would actually have to load these onto these trucks by hand.”
In another act of kindness, the flea market offered to store the food for Empower Youth if they couldn’t get it into the vehicles.
“This is kind of a big deal,” Conely said. “That was kind of huge that they would give us that opportunity.”
After successfully unloading the food onto its trucks, the Empower Youth team drove back to the organization’s farm.
When they pulled up, another team of volunteers was there waiting to unload the trucks.
Also, still in the mix, Lowe’s followed the caravan to the farm so that the team could use the forklift to unload the pallets of food into the storage barn.
After the delivery, more teams of volunteers worked for five days straight to separate out all the food.
Conely described what the donation has meant to Empower Youth.
“It was crazy how many people [contacted] us saying that they had tears in their eyes when they passed the Red Barn that morning, because from [state Route] 32, they can see our trucks lined up ready to get it,” she said. “You kind of had this whole little community rooting for you.”
It costs Empower Youth $15 a month to feed each student, and only some of the kids – between 350 and 380 – have sponsors to help cover those costs.
“This load that came in actually made it so where we can feed all of our kids with the budget that we have, and that’s the thing that people don’t really understand,” Conely said.
She estimates that the delivery will get the organization through its next six weeks; Empower Youth will add milk and juice, which cost about $2,000 a month, to the delivery.
Conely expressed her gratitude as she reflected on the situation.
“I think the thing that’s incredible too is, we’re getting calls from the Freestore, and they’re rallying for us … that’s kind of an exciting thing because we still look at ourselves as a very small, mom and pop, little organization, and what we’re realizing is, when you get phone calls from these other groups, it starts to validate you, and you realize, wow, we are making an impact, and other people are encouraging us,” she said.