This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Pa. community centers report to ‘a different front line’

When Ripple Community Center in Allentown, Pa., decided to remain open after stay-at-home orders were announced, it began with four staff on site and seven disposable face masks.

Eight weeks later, Ripple Community Center and Crossroads Community Center in Philadelphia are the two Mosaic Mennonite Conference community centers to stay open during the coronavirus shutdown.

Mosaic Conference is a merger of Franconia and Eastern District conferences.

The centers are receiving funds from Mosaic’s Shalom Fund, which has exceeded the initial goals of $100,000 and is pressing toward $125,000.

“These funds have come from individuals, businesses and congregations across the conference and beyond to meet immediate needs in vulnerable communities,” said Steve Kriss, conference executive minister.

Both centers fill indispensable roles in their communities.

“We couldn’t be closed when there was such a great need,” said Juan Marrero, executive director at Crossroads Community Center.

Can’t stay at home

Located in Philadelphia’s poorest zip code, with 80 percent Latinos and a strong African American presence, the center currently serves meals for 25 to 30 people a day.

Ripple, the only daytime community center open to the Allentown public, decided to stay open despite the challenges.

“We made the decision that we would stay open for as long as we possibly could, because we work with a lot of people who just can’t really follow stay-at-home orders,” executive director Sherri Brokopp Binder said. “With each one of those organizations that closed, the options for our community members shrank pretty quickly.”

In March, Ripple Community Inc. was serving 70 people a day, but during the first few weeks of quarantine that number spiked to 150, with nearly 500 meals served in one week.

“We went from five staff and a small army of volunteers to just four staff who could be physically present,” Brokopp Binder said.

Food and shelter

While the message of both community centers continues to be that the safest place is home, Ripple Community Center has formed two entry lines into their center — one for those who are just picking up food, the other for those who also need shelter.

Funding from the conference has allowed staff members to continue working additional hours, though they are running thin.

“While we still don’t think it’s safe for them [volunteers] to be here regularly at this point, they’re still helping in other ways,” Brokopp Binder said.

Volunteers have donated items from a list on the center’s website requesting anything from wooden coffee stirrers to Clorox wipes and Lysol spray. An online portal has been created for monetary donations.

“Like many nonprofits, the best way to support us right now is financially, in part because things still change very quickly and as new needs arise we do our best to adapt and meet them,” Brokopp Binder said.

Both centers have also used funds and volunteered labor to distribute food — up to 600 sandwiches a week — to those in need.

“We’re delivering a lot of food to our seniors who really can’t come out right now,” Marrero said.

The conference has provided food resources from a variety of sources through various locations and partnerships, according to Kriss. Food boxes have been distributed in Philadelphia in cooperation with Blessings of Hope and Garden Chapel. Fresh produce has also been provided in Philadelphia, along with health and personal hygiene products.

Safe and welcome

As both Marrero and Brokopp Binder anticipate continued social distancing guidelines, they are looking for continued ways to offer a sense of community to those around them.

“Our purpose has stayed the same,” Brokopp Binder said. “My hope for the future is that we will be able to maintain those core activities and connections that have made people feel safe and welcome here.”

Christ Centered Church, a church plant in connection with Crossroads Community Center, has held church services in the building with nine attendees and a Facebook Live link.

“This is what we have to do right now, but it’s not forever,” Brokopp Binder said.

“My staff and I are reporting to a different kind of front line — with our friends and neighbors who are facing this crisis while homeless.”

Mackenzie Miller is a Goshen College intern with MWR and The Mennonite.

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