Working with a group of dedicated volunteers, Jill Skelton has helped put food on the table for thousands of Culpeper families over the past several months.
Skelton is food manager for Empowering Culpeper, a program of the nonprofit People, Inc., working to provide food for the needy with Culpeper Health and Human Services, the USDA and the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Skelton has worked with the organization since 2003 providing sustenance to those with food insecurities across the region.
But as the COVID-19 crisis hit mid-March, it became immediately apparent to Skelton—a U.S. Air Force veteran—that some adjustments were needed to handle the dramatic increase in people who needed assistance.
Pre-pandemic, the normal distribution was 150 to 170 families. These families would visit Culpeper United Methodist Church, walk inside, provide paperwork, pick up bags of food and take them home.
“In March we went to the first drive-through and hit 237 families—80 more families within a matter of weeks,” Skelton said in an interview.
The drive-through method was developed to serve a greater number of people and better protect both the families in need and Skelton’s 40-45 volunteers from potential virus infection, since it reduces direct contact.
When the large number of vehicles driven by people picking up food at the church location started backing up onto Madison Road and slowing traffic, Skelton knew a different location was needed.
She managed to secure the Culpeper Sports Complex next to Eastern View High School, with large areas of parking spaces available to spread out. But even that became overwhelmed by the volume.
“To address that we went from once a month to every other week,” Skelton said. “With suggestions from volunteers we’ve continued to tweak the distribution each time to make it better.”
For the past two months the group has served about 270 families at each distribution. Each bag contains meats, canned fruits and vegetables, fresh produce, fresh milk and other dairy products.
“Since March we’ve had about 2,200 families come through, representing about 6,900 individuals—adults, children and seniors,” Skelton said. “We’ve packaged and handed out since March about 10,500 bags of food, averaging about 1,500 bags at each distribution.”
Skelton expressed admiration and gratitude for the many volunteers who have made the bi-weekly distribution a priority during the pandemic, out of necessity replacing some former volunteers who for reasons of age and health conditions had to stop volunteering due to the danger of virus exposure.
“We have some teachers who come out, and quite a few families,” Skelton said. “The core group is made up of young people and older people from every spectrum of our community, a really wonderful thing to see.”
The youngest volunteer is Noah Woodward, age 13, and the oldest is Clint Lewin, who is about 80, Skelton said.
Others—such as Cherry Vanneman and Marian Dykes, both founders of the program and residents of Culpeper—work behind the scenes to provide support--planning, running numbers, and making sure there’s enough food.
Some volunteers speak Spanish, which has helped in communicating with recipients, and other volunteers have provided equipment and know-how, such as using a forklift or pallet jack to move high volumes of heavy food around as needed.
“I am constantly amazed at all the creativity and resourcefulness of our volunteers,” Skelton said. “They’ve really become a strong, cohesive group through all this.”
U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger volunteered during one of the distribution events in May, and later recognized Skelton as a “VA-07 Hero,” a program Spanberger developed to highlight those in Virginia’s District 7 “who have gone above and beyond to help others” during the COVID-19 crisis.
Skelton “has brought her determination, tenacity, and problem-solving skills to bear on the crisis in Culpeper,” Spanberger said in a statement. “Skelton’s indomitable work ethic and warmth has helped meet the most basic needs of many families throughout the area.”