Early Saturday, cars filled the parking lot at Culpeper United Methodist Church and a line of waiting vehicles backed up on roads leading to the hilltop church.
Jeffery Mitchell was among the first Empowering Culpeper volunteers to arrive. He was joined by 44 others who helped the group distribute food to some of the county’s lower-income families.
“We had to open earlier than we’d planned by 30, 40 minutes,” Mitchell said. “When we saw cars lining up on Madison Road, we decided it was time.”
A program of People Incorporated, a Virginia nonprofit, Empowering Culpeper partners with Culpeper Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to feed people in need.
While the group hands out food on every third Saturday, this month was unique. This was the first time it had enabled recipients to drive through the church’s lot and pick up their food without getting out of their car.
“We’re in an unknown situation that makes everyone fearful,” Jill Skelton, the food manager of Empowering Culpeper, said in an interview Monday.
As area residents react to government measures to avoid spreading the novel coronavirus, “we’re faced with some really dire circumstances,” Skelton said. “We don’t know what tomorrow or next week is going to bring. Having food not only provides sustenance, but it’s also a comfort.”
As in other communities across the nation, the prospect of the COVID-19 disease has forced Culpeper schools and businesses to close. Nationally, millions of workers have been sent home, and services and operations are limited to internet transactions to avoid human contact and the likelihood of sharing the highly contagious virus with others.
On Saturday, Empowering Culpeper fed more than 220 families, a 41 percent increase over the 156 families who sought its help in February, Skelton said.
“But that’s only part of the story,” she added. “We also had 44 volunteers come and help—44 people who didn’t need to come, and for good reason, but they did anyway.”
The volunteers wore gloves and took extra care to make sure people stayed spaced apart, Skelton said.
“I think what I saw on Saturday was incredibly compelling—this outpouring of kindness and unity on both sides, the people accepting the help, and the people giving it,” she said.
Kellie Bartlett of Rixeyville was among those who lined up at the church Saturday to receive food for herself and her son, who is 23 and working online to earn an associate’s degree in security.
For 14 years, Bartlett taught special-needs children in different area school systems. But after suffering injuries in a car accident in December, she had to apply for disability.
“I don’t have very much money,” she said, with emotion in her voice. “I can’t provide for my son. I’m so grateful for this program.”
Bartlett said she and her son have been sheltering at home for two weeks.
“We rent a room in Rixeyville and pay the landlord by doing chores,” she said. “Thank heaven none of us are showing any signs of the virus.”
Bartlett was especially grateful for the program’s drive-through service, provided for the first time on Saturday.
“Thank God they thought of a way—with this virus, they found a way to give us the food so we weren’t in contact with anyone, always more than six feet away—all I had to do was push the button to open my trunk, and they put it in,” she said.
Because of the larger numbers they expected Saturday, and the need to keep everyone at a safe distance from each other, the drive-through method was implemented.
“It worked really well,” Skelton said. “It was a great combined community effort.”
The Culpeper Medical Reserve Corps set up cones in the church’s parking lot to direct drivers where to go, she said. On Friday evening, a tractor-trailer delivered the food from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. The U.S. Department of Agriculture waived the application form normally required from recipients.
Among those who volunteered to help bag and move the food from the church to individual cars were soccer players from the Culpeper Soccer Club, high school students who attend Culpeper and Eastern View high schools.
“This time, especially, I heard they needed younger volunteers, because of the danger of the virus,” soccer coach Alan Moy said. “They usually have a lot of senior volunteers who couldn’t come and do something like this.”
Moy said he emailed all of his soccer players. He coaches boys at Eastern View High School, and girls through the Culpeper Soccer Club. About 10 students from each program came to help.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Paige Rankins, who attends Eastern View. “We didn’t have much else going on so it was good to do.”
Skelton said watching everyone involved on Saturday inspired her.
“A really remarkable part of humanity shone through that day,” she said. “It made me feel really good about what was happening. In an atmosphere right now where everyone is nervous and afraid, everyone opened their hearts and there was patience and kindness on all sides.”