What does the Last Saturday of the Month mean to you?

last_saturday_alive_volunteersStunning orange, yellow and red leaves hang from trees and are beginning to fall. Soon these glorious fall days and those leaves will be a distant memory.  Whether sweltering in the summer or freezing in the winter, on the last Saturday of the month, there is a local Alexandria nonprofit called ALIVE! that is out in full force with an army of volunteers. This is a story about a community coming together for the sake of the most vulnerable.

Last January, I experienced a remarkable program in our midst called “Last Saturday,” which is a food outreach effort of ALIVE!. 

When I arrived just before 8 am, there were two lines of folks patiently waiting in the bitter cold air outside Cora Kelly Elementary School in Alexandria. It could have been far colder, given that it was late January, but it was cold enough to make a person shiver.

That morning, there was frost on the windows of cars, and sunlight didn’t appear until close to 7 am. But they were all there, patiently waiting, huddling, and chatting.

Many of the folks had already been in the lines for two hours or more. One line was for the elderly. The second line was for all the other folks, many of whom had children with them. One little girl clutched a doll or teddy bear. She still had her pajamas on.

Just past 8 am, the elderly were welcomed through a door. Dressed in layers of sweaters and wearing hats, scarves, and gloves, the elderly knew to take a seat in the long hallway. Some had canes or a walker. They were relieved to be sitting down and expressed immense gratitude to ALIVE! (www.alive-inc.org) for helping them with food. Otherwise, they would not have enough.

For millions of Americans, the last week of the month is tough. The money has run out, and there is no food left to eat. This is a reflection of our times and the growing divide in America. It is why once a month this Alexandria nonprofit called ALIVE! (or Alexandria Involved Ecumenically) has its Last Saturday Food Distribution Program, or Last Saturday.

Completely organized by ALIVE! volunteers, Last Saturday runs like a well-oiled machine. Distributing bags of free groceries to 300-400 families at Cora Kelly takes a coordinated volunteer team effort. On the last Saturday of every month, ALIVE! distributes food at Cora Kelly and two other sites in Alexandria, serving approximately 750-800 households. In the summer, they will serve close to 1,000. Last Saturday demonstrates what is possible when a community joins forces for the public good.

The Last Saturday site coordinator at Cora Kelly is Deborah Patterson, who works at Thomson Reuters and has been a volunteer with ALIVE! for 15 years. She is one of 700 volunteers who help ALIVE! with various outreach programs.

Deborah opened the door for the folks in the other line and personally welcomed them, many of whom she seemed to know. Families and individuals sat down in another part of the hallway. Children of all ages played quietly at a set of tables in a designated area. As usual, ALIVE! provided paper and crayons for the children. That day, the children were delighted to be making Valentine’s Day cards.

Cora Kelly was now full of people, ranging in age from newborn to the elderly.

One African American fellow, age 57, whose disability prevents him from working and who did not wish to be identified, said softly, “It helps me out from check to check. My cupboard is bare.” He has lived in Alexandria since age 14 and attended T.C. Williams High School. It was his senior year when the Titans won the football game portrayed in the Denzel Washington film, “Remember the Titans.” Recalling the big victory, his face brightened, and he said proudly, “It was tremendously exciting.” For a moment, he was transported to another time in his life.

Margo Heard, age 68 and a grandmother, said she got up at 5:30 that morning and was in line by 6:30. It took time to scrape the ice off of her windshield. She has been coming to Last Saturday for about a year. “But when it’s real cold, I don’t come,” she said. “So many people need food now. You see how the line is. Wait until it gets warmer. You got a line around the parking lot. And then you have the ones who show up, and they don’t ever turn anyone down. Now, when I go home today, I’ll call in for the next month. And I’ll call again in two weeks and make sure I’m on the list. It’s a very good program. We’ve been out here in the snow.”

Her friend, Marie Best, age 67, explained, “You have to be referred by social services or your case worker. By calling in, they have an idea how much to have. Today was good.”

Margo agreed, “This was a good month. Not so crowded.”

They both grew up in Alexandria. Margo, who now lives in public housing in Old Town and represents the Alexandria Regional Housing Authority on the city’s Economic Opportunities Commission, explained, “One time, they opened the doors and a few shoved. Margaret [a senior sitting nearby] was pushed and she fell. Once they opened the door, some folks crashed the door, but we stopped the crowd so she could get up and get in first.”

Margaret Sherdil sat across from Margo in the hallway holding onto her cane. She’s 81 and arrived that morning at 6 am.

That morning, there was no shoving. In fact, there is never a reason for shoving, but it is indicative of the desperation felt. The volunteer team tells the elderly and all the clients that they can come later in the morning, even as late as 11 am. But they all line up extra early, lest they end up with less food or perhaps nothing. They need the groceries. For many, it is what they must do. They and their families are hungry.

With clipboard in hand, Deborah and a volunteer named Daniel, who will be 15 in April and is in eighth grade at George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, went to each person in the hallway, checked off their name on the list and gave everyone a “ticket” with a number.

Deborah explained, “The whole reason we do these slips or tickets is not only to be fair but also because we have to account for USDA food we receive from the Capital Area Food Bank. That’s why our numbers are so important.”

In addition to the food from the Capital Area Food Bank, she said, “We buy produce and meats and eggs at reduced rates. ALIVE! takes donations of food, money, house wares and furniture, too.”

Jean Moore, who has been overseeing the whole Last Saturday program for ALIVE!’s three sites for eight years, said, “We give away in excess of 40,000 pounds of food a month.”

A retired partner at the law firm of Hogan & Hartson, Jean explained that ALIVE! does more than food distribution. “We asked the clients, ‘What can we do to make your lives better?’ They said health care, ESL, and jobs. Since that time, it’s amazing the number of programs we have: doctors do free eye exams; the health department gives free flu shots; dentists and primary care doctors are coming in; drug prescription cards are being distributed; tax preparation for the poor. Each month, we’re connecting the clients with other programs. We have found produce markets willing to take food stamps and even double their value. There’s a lot we can do. It was a matter of organizing it,” she said.

About being a volunteer, she said, “For all of us in our lives, there is always some time when we are going to need help and a time when we can give someone help. Giving time, prayers, advocating for the poor, giving donations – it all makes a difference.”

Margo raved about the volunteers. “The volunteers will always help you to your car, even if you have a cart,” she said, pointing to the wall of carts, each with a little tag.

The seniors bring an empty cart that some call “granny carts,” and the volunteers attach a tag with a number. When the seniors step up to receive their bags, the groceries are already in their carts.

Edmund Christian, age 73, is a retired auto mechanic who has lived in Alexandria since 1973. His work never had a pension for him, and he relies on Social Security. A quiet man, Edmund said he has arthritis that hurts. His cane helps him with his balance. He said, “This food helps a lot. And if you don’t feel well enough, Christ Church calls ALIVE!, and ALIVE! brings the food to you.”

ALIVE! also has a Family Emergency Food Program that delivers food five days a week to the sick and elderly in Alexandria. Volunteers make it happen.

One woman comes to Last Saturday to get food supplies for her ailing father. Lois Vaughn, age 60, has lived in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood her whole life and works in the cafeteria at T.C. Williams High School. She said, “I get the food for my father who is 84. He can’t walk. Poor circulation in his legs and he has cancer.”

The woman sitting next to Lois is an old friend named Gloria Hopkins, age 63, and she added, “It helps.” She grew up in Danville, Virginia. “A country girl,” she calls herself. She came to Alexandria in 1968 for work. She works in laundry services at a local hotel.

Margo Heard chimed in, “Food prices are so high. Every bit helps.” In addition to Social Security, Margo has a retirement check from working as an assistant billing supervisor for Fairfax public schools. Even though Margo has children and grandchildren to feed, some of the food that she picks up that day will go to her neighbor who has kidney disease and is housebound.

Gloria, who says she lives check to check, added, “It’s good you got Social Security. Lord knows what you be at.” Everyone nodded. One of them said, “We didn’t think the cost of living was going to get this high.”

Geneva Jones, also age 63, showed her hands, which were stiff with arthritis. “I am from Warsaw, Virginia, and I shucked oysters for years. It’s hard work and cold. I now have blood pressure, a weak heart and ulcers. I’m here all morning. It’s worth it. That food helps so much. Oh my Lord, it’s a true blessing. I thank the Lord every time.” Geneva has a small retirement check and Social Security but it’s not enough. She loves her 85-year-old mother and takes care of her the best she can. This was Geneva’s sixth time at Last Saturday.

Alice Seales, age 80, got there at 6:30 am and said, “I’ve been coming ever since they started because I need the food. Helps ends meet for me.”

Magba Giles, age 83, added with a big smile, “I’m very excited when they give me onions, potatoes, and vegetables.”

With its 140,000 residents, Alexandria is a prosperous community with historic beauty, cobble-stoned streets in Old Town, and popular restaurants and shops. As reported recently in The Washington Post, the median purchase price for a home in Alexandria in 2011 was $594,205, which was an increase of nearly $45,000 since 2010.

Yet, self-sufficiency is not a given for thousands of residents. Alexandria’s poverty rate is just under 9 percent. Affordable and workforce housing and hunger are growing concerns in the city as it is throughout the nation. For residents on a fixed or limited income, the rising costs of shelter, food, gas, utility bills and health care are too much to bear. In many ways, Alexandria is a microcosm for the growing divide in the nation. Without Social Security, which these individuals paid into, many of these folks would be in far worse shape.

Nationally, more than 46 million Americans receive food stamps today. That is roughly one in seven Americans and is a number that has risen 34 percent in the past two years and has more than doubled in the past decade.

The City of Alexandria has an immense network of compassionate programs, and Alexandria is blessed to have nonprofits and their countless volunteers who help the most vulnerable.

It is the generosity of many who have made ALIVE! possible. Started in 1969 with a small number of congregations, ALIVE! now has over 40 congregations and synagogues that have joined forces to make a difference with its Childhood Development Center; ALIVE! House Shelter for Women and Families, furniture program, Family Emergency Program, and Last Saturday.

“We know that the unemployment rate is getting better, but we also know that people are doubling up in their homes. Our numbers are all up from a year ago,” stated Ken Naser, ALIVE!’s executive director. “Our numbers for ‘Last Saturday’ are up 16% over a year ago, from serving 1,904 individuals in January 2011 to serving 2,210 individuals in January 2012. And this summer has been robust as well.”

Except for a few professional staff, ALIVE!’s programs are dependent on donations and volunteers. Naser emphasized, “People donate food as in-kind contributions, and we rely on monetary contributions in order to buy food from the Capital Area Food Bank. It’s very reduced, but it’s 19 cents a pound for whatever they have available in meats, cheeses, and fresh produce.”

In addition to donations, ALIVE! is always looking for more space within the city to expand its food operation.

One volunteer, an engineer named Russ Koenig who works at Booz Allen, is in charge of the bagging operation at Cora Kelly. He has the whole system worked out in a complicated diagram. He originally heard about ALIVE! through a group called One Brick, which connects volunteers with good works like Last Saturday.

Russ, who is 30 and has been a volunteer with the program for the past four years, explained, “We always give out everything. We stretch things out to make sure we get to everyone. Our goal is that each family gets enough food for four or five days for the entire family. Not always realized. We buy from the Capital Area Food Bank, which is discounted. We could use more fresh food.”

Barbara Cooley has helped ALIVE! for 15 years. A retired schoolteacher who taught special education in Woodbridge, Barbara has lived in Alexandria for 40 years and said, “I just enjoy helping other people.”

The woman sitting next to her speaking to clients in Spanish and then translating for others was Deborah Schaffer, an ESL teacher at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Alexandria. She has been a volunteer with ALIVE! for six years and thrives on it.

Their table checked in clients on the master list. They had their regular team of Deborah, Barbara, and a well-dressed fellow named Bill Willis, who will be 89 soon. Bill has been an ALIVE! volunteer since 1981 and served as president of the board in the mid-1980s. Although he lives in D.C., he grew up in Alexandria and graduated from high school here. “I was living in Alexandria and got married and couldn’t find decent housing because of segregation. So I moved to D.C. in 1948.” Now retired from a distinguished career in the CIA, Bill explained, “My church got me involved with ALIVE!. I needed something to do when I retired. I am also involved with Carpenter’s Shelter.”

Outside the building was another large team of volunteers who were handling boxes of fresh vegetables, cartons of drinks, and frozen turkeys. At a line of tables, the volunteers, mostly from One Brick, took turns carrying boxes of food for the different families. 

Guillermo Valdivia, age 36, is devoted to the cause even though he lives in Springfield. He served in the U.S. Army and now works as a civil engineer. He moved from Bolivia to this country when he was eight years old, and said, “I never miss this particular event. I like the camaraderie. I’ve made good friends here. I believe what goes around comes around.”

Finally, there was Addie Hebert, age 87, who is ALIVE!’s House Wares Chair. A volunteer since 2003, Addie moved from her beloved Boston to Alexandria in order to be closer to her children and grandchildren. Her son had been president of ALIVE!’s board, and Addie got involved. She worked for 26 years for MetLife and has no intention to slow down. She collects gently used clothes, shoes, kitchen items, soaps, vases, towels, art, and all kinds of items for one’s home. After picking up bags of food, the clients come into a room where Addie has all the donated wares on tables. By the end of Last Saturday, most of the items have found a new home.

It was the end of a long morning, and Deborah Patterson came in and put her arm around Addie to thank her. Deborah said, “You see what need there is. You could spend your time on the betterment of yourself but why not spend your time helping your neighbors? It’s so meaningful.”

With her Boston brogue, Addie agreed, “When you see their faces when they get house wares, you’re really making a difference. They’re so happy to see you.”


The author of “Visionaries In Our Midst: Ordinary People who are Changing our World” and the Chair of Alexandria’s Economic Opportunities Commission, Allison Silberberg is a writer/communications consultant who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She is a Democratic nominee for Alexandria City Council. Her email is: allison@allisonsilberberg.com. Web site is: www.allisonsilberberg.com.


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