When schools started closing across Alabama last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ken Austin, pastor of New Walk of Life Church in Montgomery, and Madison Darling, director of operations at The Mercy House, contacted two others to see what could be done to make sure schoolchildren in their community would continue to receive lunch.
They gathered on a conference call March 16 to work out a plan. Since then, the needs have grown and, as a result, the conference calls have grown to include nearly 150 community, business and government partners in Montgomery’s River Region.
“When this first started, we were concerned how the children were going to get meals,” Austin said. “Because of those on this call, now those schools have worked out plans and ways that people can go to the schools and pick up lunches and deliver them to places where the children live. Churches have partnered with schools and become hubs in a community. None of those things were organized or available before we started with this call. It’s amazing how golden information is.”
The conference call now happens every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m. Darling emails participants an agenda before each call and follow-up notes afterward so everyone can quickly connect needs with supplies and then provide help.
“We’re a conduit,” Darling said. “We’re helping make connections. We’re working together now to make sure that, in this crisis, needs are met and people are cared for.”
One of those needs was internet access. Darling said many of the families The Mercy House serves cannot afford internet access, leaving many schoolchildren without a way to complete online school assignments. However, through conference calls, Darling said Spectrum in Montgomery agreed to provide internet access for children living in government housing.
“Our voices raised together resulted in internet access for our clients in those communities and tangible solutions for children to stay on grade level,” Darling said. “We now have a coalition of people working toward a common goal, caring about the people of our city and our county. It’s really exciting.”
Austin said the coalition includes community agencies such as River Region United Way, Salvation Army and Friendship Mission; businesses such as Alabama Power; and representatives from all levels of local and state government.
“We even had representatives from the offices of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones and U.S. Representative Terri Sewell on the call last week,” Austin said. “This has glued us together and this community continues to unite. We’re just excited about how we continue to move this city and community forward.”
Darling said the collaboration will continue well beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
“We now have a coalition of people working toward a common goal, caring about the people of our city and our county,” Darling said. “If someone in northern Alabama or southern Alabama wants to start something similar in their area, we’re more than happy to share how we do it. We want for other people and other communities to be knit together as well during this time because it advances our state as a whole.”