Ten years ago, Merrimack Valley YMCA staff began serving breakfast and lunch to the participants in their child care programs. Though the agency received U.S. Department of Agriculture reimbursements for families who qualified for meal assistance at school, it chose to provide the meals to all the children who attend the program.
From there, another need was uncovered. Many families relied on the Y to feed their children during the week; but on weekends, those kids struggled to find food in their cabinets. So the YMCA stepped in again.
A program was started in which child care clients went home every Friday with a backpack full of provisions to make weekend meals.
In the decade since those programs began, the organization has continued to add services when food insecurity needs arise, says Merrimack Valley YMCA President and CEO Francis Kenneally. Around 2014, staff began to serve meals to teens in the after-school or evening programs, he says. The YMCA has partnered with Methuen Public Schools’ food services department, which prepares and delivers the meals to the YMCA locations, where they are distributed by staff.
Five years ago, the YMCA found a way to further assist the community when it opened a food pantry at the Lawrence location. The service was used by people coming into the YMCA, and by the men living on the top floors of the building. Still today, clients can pick up a bag of food.
“It was a nice program — it was a modest program,” Kenneally says. Members of the community donate food items such as canned goods, and the YMCA works with the Merrimack Valley Food Bank to secure milk, perishable items and proteins.
When a crisis strikes
In September 2018, when the Merrimack Valley was hit by explosions and fires from pressure in the gas lines, the humble food pantry suddenly was in great demand.
Once again, the YMCA staff thought about how it could help.
The organization’s locations in Andover, Lawrence and Methuen were opened to residents without heat and in need of shower and bathroom facilities. The pantry began distributing food twice a week. At its peak, it was serving about 500 people, a sharp increase from the 50-200 it helped before the gas explosions.
When the pandemic arrived in March 2020 and the YMCA saw a spike in the need for assistance, it implemented lessons learned during the 2018 crisis.
With regular operations closed, the YMCA supplemented other meal programs in the area by also providing food to people impacted by COVID-19.
The Merrimack Valley YMCA also opened space in its facilities for children needing a place to complete remote learning.
At the Lawrence location, staff began offering “grab-and-go” meals each weekday. At the height of the pandemic, a line circled around the building.
A couple hundred visitors were able to get a meal each weekday, as well as groceries from the pantry, which staff stocked with increased donations. The YMCA held “pop-up food drives” as neighborhoods rallied to fill vehicles with food.
“It was a huge success,” Kenneally says.
The daily meals still continue and will for the foreseeable future. “Right now,” he says, “we have no intention of stopping them.”
The Merrimack Valley YMCA in Methuen serves as a distribution site for the Greater Boston Food Bank’s mobile food market. Since May 2020, the food bank has dropped off 11,000 pounds of food once a month that staff organizes into grocery bags for members of the public to come and take. The groceries include fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and dry goods.
Hundreds of cars line up on distribution day, Kenneally says. The program is scheduled to continue until the end of the year, but Kenneally says the YMCA would certainly be willing to continue serving as a drop-off site if the food bank chooses to do so.
A weekday hot meals program is currently being offered at the Andover location through a grant from Groundwork Lawrence.
“We are looking for additional funding to be able to keep that going,” Kenneally says.
Remote learning space
As the 2020-2021 school year began and many students were heading back to class in a remote or hybrid environment, the Merrimack Valley YMCA repurposed portions of its facilities in Andover, Lawrence and Methuen for use by students who needed a place to go during the school day.
About 250 children took advantage of the setup, Kenneally says. Staff was present to help proctor students and troubleshoot technology problems.
Like every other organization, the YMCA was impacted financially when the pandemic struck and its operations stopped, Kenneally says, but staff are proud of how they were able to continue to meet its mission.
“We’re really proud of being able to do that,” he says.
Merrimack Valley YMCA
Andover, Lawrence and Methuen