[Written by Audrey Ann Crocker, University of South Carolina Social Worker Graduate Intern and Colin Bauer, District Social Worker & McKinney-Vento Liaison, Spartanburg School District 7, South Carolina.]
It was mid-summer when one of our volunteers, Melissa, contacted Colin Bauer, a social worker with School District 7, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was also mid-pandemic and the needs of our families in District 7 were at an all-time high. Melissa felt drawn to respond to the needs of these families after witnessing several experiences of poverty in the area, which highlighted how many of our families did not have the shelter and the food they needed.
Flashforward six months, Melissa and Colin, along with a dedicated and steadily growing group of volunteers, are now executing our weekly food drive called EPIC. We intentionally chose this name, which stands for Empowering People, Impacting Change, because the heart of our program is to empower these families in a way that pushes them towards sustainable life change. Most importantly, we want to prioritize the partnership that we are building with these families and create lasting relationships that are built on trust, respect, and value for each human being. This is where the concept of mutual aid comes into play.
Most individuals assume that charity is the only way to help those in need. However, commonly attached to a charity model is a mindset of separation and disconnect, where the donor takes a position of superiority over the beneficiary and many times a “savior complex” might be established for the donor. It’s important to note that this is not always the case with charity, but we desired to be vigilant in creating a program that would stray from this common mishap. Therefore, in the spirit of social justice and human rights, we believe it’s crucial to illuminate the truth that all human beings deserve equal dignity and respect, and their lack of basic resources is not a reason to diminish this dignity. Instead, we choose to partner with them, to come alongside them, and to acknowledge our mutual humanity while working with them to help them reach their goals.
Therefore, in the spirit of social justice and human rights, we believe it’s crucial to illuminate the truth that all human beings deserve equal dignity and respect, and their lack of basic resources is not a reason to diminish this dignity. Instead, we choose to partner with them, to come alongside them, and to acknowledge our mutual humanity while working with them to help them reach their goals.
Now EPIC has surpassed what we dreamed it could be. We partner with 28 families, approximately 62 adults and 78 students from preK through 12th grade, from the District 7 area each week. Our team of volunteers packs and delivers the supplies with big smiles (underneath masks) and lots of energy in under three hours, and our packing and delivery system keeps improving each week. Collaborating churches and nonprofits are also helping us to continually expand the types of resources we can offer. For example, Partners for Active Living, a local nonprofit, is now providing nutritional education for our families, like the importance of adding more vegetables and spices into their diet. In addition, local churches have donated crock pots and electric frying pans to encourage families to cook together. These recent additions fit perfectly with our goal of educating families on healthy living, developing self-sufficiency, and increasing family unity. Lastly, it’s unsurprising that we ourselves have been impacted by EPIC. Our volunteers have become a devoted group of friends who are now more knowledgeable about the value of mutual aid and can educate their communities of friends and families about the importance of equipping and partnering.
We are in awe that even within the first six months we have witnessed families utilizing resources to save money and be successful in finding permanent housing. We plan to continue the program with our families after the pandemic, with the goal for each subsequent year to expand the numbers of families we can partner with and to increase volunteers and faith-based and non-profit engagement. We are excited to celebrate the impact of EPIC and spotlight those families that have already moved into more stable housing. Most importantly, we love that the families and volunteers have formed reciprocal relationships; it is this partnership that really makes the difference…and that is truly EPIC!