Since the COVID-19 crisis hit Pittsburgh, need for the East End Cooperative Ministry’s food pantry has rapidly escalated, according to the nonprofit’s executive director, Carole Bailey.
“We’ve seen the number of families we serve triple during the pandemic,” she said. “We were seeing approximately 25 to 30 families a day; since the pandemic we’re seeing over 90.”
Bailey, a member of Temple Sinai, said that to meet the increased demand, EECM now allows families to pick up food weekly; before the pandemic, families were limited to one trip per month.
For the past 50 years, EECM has served East End Pittsburgh communities, beginning with breakfasts to students at Peabody High School, its Meals on Wheels program and tutoring. The interfaith ministry has expanded during its five decades of operation to offer vulnerable adults and at-risk children and youth emergency shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs and summer camp as well as violence prevention, employment, and educational programs.
Bailey served as the nonprofit’s CFO in 2016 and 2017 before being named its executive director 18 months ago. The CPA had her own consulting business prior to joining EECM but is no stranger to nonprofits, having worked with them for the last 23 years.
EECM was started in the basement of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church by 18 neighborhood congregations. It began as a food pantry and soup kitchen but quickly grew to include a shelter for homeless men.
“And then, 10 years later, we started our children and youth services programs,” Bailey said.
Six years ago, EECM opened a new building after a long capital campaign, expanding its shelter to include women and children and increasing its capacity to host 51 people.
A recovery house for those leaving inpatient treatment is located at the new building.
“They come here and we work to get them through the next phase of their recovery,” Bailey explained.
The organization’s mission includes more than simply providing a warm bed or a meal for those it serves.
“We have educational and employment services,” Bailey said. “We teach financial management, how to budget and make sure you’ll be able to pay your bills, anger management, how to write a resume and interview. The basics of what you need to get a job.”
Bailey pointed out that those services are open not only to EECM’s residents but to the general community as well.
EECM also has “two different workforce development arms,” a sewing studio and landscape and office cleaning business, Bailey explained. Like other industries, EECM’s sewing studio recently switched its production to help meet a need stemming from the pandemic: assembling face masks.
Last week, the studio was in the process of donating 175 face masks to Operation Better Block in Homewood, which would be distributed to residents of two senior high rises. The protective gear was created by EECM’s “sewing studio and partially from home stitchers,” Bailey said.
Rabbi Ron Symons recalled that when he started serving Temple Sinai in 2008, the congregation began engaging with the ministry “because they were a natural partner.”
Symons said that when EECM was constructing its new building, he became very involved with the nonprofit’s efforts in determining “how do we create a sense of togetherness among the congregations that support EECM and how do we sanctify the space.”
The Reform rabbi was able to coordinate what he calls “a next generation mezuzah hanging.” Hanging a traditional mezuzah would not have been appropriate, he explained, because of the multifaith mission of the organization, and “we wouldn’t want to superimpose our belief system on them,” he said.
Instead, Symons said, “glass shadowboxes” were made that contained scrolls, like a mezuzah. Instead of containing the traditional blessing, however, the shadowboxes were filled with “hopes and wishes of people for the new building and the organization.”
Through his work now as the director of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness, Symons has continued to partner with EECM.
A recent email from the center urged Jewish community members to donate urgently needed food to the nonprofit, he said.
Temple Sinai Senior Rabbi Jamie Gibson said he spent “a good deal of his early career” serving lunch on Thursdays when EECM’s kitchen was located at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
Gibson’s involvement with the organization also extended to planning and management.
“I actively helped recruit people to serve on their board,” he said. “For a long time, their executive director Myrna Zelenitz was a member of Temple Sinai and I encouraged her to take that position.”
He assisted with fundraising for EECM’s new building and called it “an incredible building, a real highlight of the East Liberty community even before the community started reviving itself.”
Temple Sinai remains active with EECM today, Gibson said, noting that on the first Thursday of each month, Temple members help to prepare and serve lunch at EECM’s shelter.
While Temple Sinai cannot help to serve food now because of pandemic restrictions, Gibson said, the coronavirus crisis emphasizes the need for EECM.
“It’s even more important now to reach the vulnerable people in our part of the city,” he said.
Gibson continues to serve as part of the organization’s clergy advisory committee, which meets four times a year.
The Jewish service organization, Repair the World Pittsburgh, has continued to assist EECM in the midst of the pandemic, with its fellows — including Maya Bornstein, Savannah Parson and Alyssa Berman — the only volunteers allowed inside the organization’s pantry, where they assist packing and disturbing food.
Assisting EECM with restocking shelves and packing food has brought her “joy and comfort” and the knowledge that she is “helping a family put food the table,” Berman said.
For Bailey, it has been Judaism that has shaped her work with EECM.
“In Judaism, it’s important to give back no matter your social, economic status,” she said. “I’ve taken that as what I need to do.”
The executive director believes that need exists, with or without a pandemic.
“I think there are many people, especially now but even before, who were one tragedy, a paycheck, a layoff away from needing our services. They aren’t here for a handout. They need help and if we can get them through that period, they will be OK. We’re trying not just to be a bed for people but to be something that helps them sustain their lives.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.