These days, Miguel Saldin is a logistics guy. Since the COVID-19 pandemic slammed Seattle, he’s built a system that brings 2,200 meals and 2,100 grocery bags to seniors and other vulnerable residents each week. As the bags are assembled in tidy rows in the gym at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), he makes phone calls and checks a spreadsheet.
But whenever Saldin has the chance, he takes a break from logistics to slip special cards into the bags, alongside the rice, onions, canned salmon and bok choy. Handwritten by volunteers along with stickers and doodles, the cards help isolated residents cope. The volunteers share stories, poems and encouragement.
“I call them well-wish cards,” Saldin said, placing one in each bag. “I like to put them in myself. I like to think I’m adding to the positive vibes.”
The deliveries are crucial for ACRS, because COVID-19 has shut down the Seattle nonprofit’s in-person services, such as its Club Bamboo senior center, which offers hot lunches along with yoga, tai chi, line dancing and English classes.
The pandemic has forced ACRS to squeeze love and care into its grocery bags, including recipes, exercise guides, information about the U.S. Census and public health notices. Case managers follow up with phone calls in languages such as Korean and Nepali.
“It’s more than just the food,” Saldin said. “We’re communicating.”
Headquartered in Rainier Valley, ACRS is one of 12 charities supported by reader donations to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
Besides nutrition and senior wellness, the organization’s programs cover behavioral health, youth development, job training, immigration assistance and other needs. Counseling sessions and citizenship classes have moved online this year, with ACRS helping some clients access and use online tools.
When the virus emerged, Bal Khadka, 85, worried about trips to the store. Now meals are delivered to his Tukwila apartment, he said in an interview, ranking chow mein and fried rice as favorites.
“When we had no hope, ACRS was here,” Khadka, a refugee from Bhutan, said in Nepali through an interpreter. “They kept calling to tell us about every situation … We don’t have stress going outside anymore.”
The last nine months have rushed by for Saldin, who oversees ACRS’ nutrition and assistance programs. In normal times, those include a food bank, multiple emergency-feeding programs, Club Bamboo and eight other congregate-meal programs for Asian American and Pacific Islander seniors.
The percentage of King County, Pierce County and Snohomish County residents without enough to eat, at times, spiked as the virus hit, increasing from 4.7% in March to 8.7% in June.
“When COVID started, we quickly had to contact our community partners to figure out how to change our model,” Saldin said.
Initially, that meant dispatching grocery bags from the ACRS food bank, housed in a trailer in the Chinatown International District. But space was tight there.
“We moved here (to the nonprofit’s headquarters) so we could take more inventory, and so we could socially distance,” Saldin said. “Volunteers can use the parking lot, and we have a big kitchen.”
The organization began by delivering to its Club Bamboo clients. But as word spread between neighbors and relatives, the enterprise grew. Today, ACRS buys groceries for thousands of households every week. Tilth Alliance and Food Lifeline contribute extra fresh fruits and vegetables.
In the kitchen, ACRS chef Salima Mohamath and her helpers cook more than 500 meals on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and about 650 on Fridays. Tossing meat, vegetables and sauce, they wrestle with a wok the size of a semitruck wheel. “We’re actually getting a larger one,” Saldin said.
Mohamath rarely repeats a recipe. Her menu ranges from Vietnamese soup noodles to lemon grass chicken, which recently involved 300 pounds of meat, 350 pounds of rice and 100 pounds of vegetables. The one-time restaurateur has been working at that scale for six months straight. Isn’t she exhausted?
“I’m healthy. My team is healthy,” she said. “I’m working for others. That’s why I’m happy.”
ACRS doesn’t have enough employees to pack and deliver all the meals and groceries, so volunteers are key. Some bundle the meals in plastic and cart them upstairs, where they’re loaded onto King County Metro Access shuttles.
The room where the volunteers work is next to Mohamath’s kitchen, so savory aromas keep them company. “It smells so good in here,” said Valerie Green, 48, who joined the crew in June, after she lost her job.
Prepandemic, the Access drivers provided on-demand rides to people with disabilities. When the virus arrived, the shuttles pivoted to delivery, partnering with nonprofits across the area.
Elaine Liu, 21, was planning to spend time in Hong Kong this year while on a break from college, she said as she carried meals to an Access shuttle. Then she began volunteering with ACRS, and she was hooked. “I get to meet cool people,” she said. “This was honestly one of the biggest reasons I ended up staying.”
Back in the gym, young men in camouflage uniforms squeaked across the basketball court, packing food at a steady clip. The National Guard lent them to ACRS for physical work, like hauling bags to vehicles outside. Every week, volunteers from 20 community groups distribute ACRS groceries.
Some ACRS partners, like Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), have been involved since March, delivering to seniors in the Chinatown International District. “You guys are providing culturally relevant staples,” SCIDpda’s property operations director, Jared Jonson, told Saldin. “That’s what makes ACRS special.”
ACRS has added other partners more recently. Homeless outreach workers from REACH distribute 100 meals every Wednesday to people on the streets.
Beacon Hill resident Alice Brandt signed up to volunteer in response to a request for mutual aid she saw while scrolling Instagram. “I know the area, so I know exactly where” to drive the bags, Brandt said.
COVID-19 has been hard on many ACRS clients, including the Korean American seniors Timothy Kim visits with groceries and a willing ear. They miss the in-person meals that brought them together to chat and laugh.
They even miss arguing, said Kim, an ACRS case manager. “They’re so disconnected,” he said. “They talk about the good old days. They wish they could meet again.”
This year has been hard on Saldin, too. To start the delivery system, he initially worked “late nights, early mornings, weekends.” He lost his mother-in-law to coronavirus in Seattle and an uncle passed away in the Philippines. His children, 9 and 11, are at home, trying to learn remotely.
This fall, COVID-19 cases are surging again.
“It’s been such a hectic time,” Saldin said. “You keep your head down and work hard. At some point, you need to pick up your head and grieve.”
Muhammad Soh, who manages the ACRS food bank, has watched Saldin persevere. “For a guy who’s really busy, Miguel is always calm,” Soh said. “Inside, I know he has a lot going on.”
Many clients would go hungry without ACRS, and many would feel all alone. That’s why the organization had to adjust, Saldin said, reading a well-wish card before adding it to a grocery bag.
“I think during this pandemic, it is important to be adaptable. We cannot make it go away,” a volunteer wrote on the card in English and Chinese. “I hope that even during these weird times, you have found good and happiness. Have an amazing day and week! Take care.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified an employee at a nonprofit that partners with ACRS. Jared Jonson is property operations manager at the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority.