Janet Hooper, executive director of the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center, is used to times of crisis. Normally, they arrive one family at a time through job losses, food insecurities and electric bill shut offs. Now, Hooper and her team of employees and volunteers are handling a new urgency, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center assists residents in 34695, 34677, 33759, and 33761 zip codes. Safety Harbor’s population includes all income levels, from the affluent to the jobless, but for those who manage one paycheck at a time, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus adds an unforeseen level of stress for many families.
“We’re ready,” Hooper said. “We are closed to the public but if anyone is in need of food or hygiene products, we can direct them to get help.”
The food pantry is still open on Thursdays from 9 to 11 a.m. and they have a select group that comes in the afternoon due to work schedules. “That is all done outside. They come up, put their name on the list and we have volunteers who’ve prepackaged everything. They get milk or eggs, meat and vegetables.”
Hooper explained that with the shelter in place order, food pantries will stay open. “I’ve committed this week and the next two weeks but I won’t know what it looks like later,” she said. “It is just as hard for us but we still need to provide services.”
So far, she and her staff are taking it one step at a time. “I need to make sure everybody’s safe. We don’t want to put people at risk, but we want to serve. I’ve agonized over how many weeks we can go.,” Hooper said. “I don’t sleep at night.”
Last week the center had fewer people show up for food than Hooper and her team are used to. “We have several seniors who we feed. They didn’t show up so we will contact them to see if they’re in need. If people need to sign up for food stamps our family support person will work with them to help them sign up.”
For safety concerns, Hooper is asking the community not to bring donations of clothing or food at this time. “If people want to help with the food pantry, the best way would be through a financial contribution,” she said. “We only get three boxes of meat so we have to go out and buy more. It makes it more difficult. “
Hooper still manages to keep her chin up even through the worry. “We had a conference call with the Juvenile Welfare Board and they’re working with partners across the County to feed kids,” she said. “The school system is feeding kids and our school is Eisenhower Elementary. They are working on a new program where the [Mattie Williams] center will be able to provide a drive-through breakfast and lunch program. It will start within two weeks.”
It may be difficult to comprehend how many food-challenged neighbors we have in Safety Harbor. The Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center serves 90 families, which translates to about 250 individuals. Hooper believes the demand will only increase and she isn’t sure how she’ll make up for the fundraisers that have been canceled due to the coronavirus.
“Bands on The Bay got canceled . . . all that money would have gone to the food pantry. We lost that revenue. The community Easter service usually raises $1200. We have lost a lot. Unfortunately, with all the people being laid off, it is going to get worse before it gets better.”.