When the pandemic began nearly two years ago, those hit the hardest financially were already among the lowest wage earners. And for families living paycheck-to-paycheck because their jobs don’t pay a living wage, the shock of losing a job overnight cut to the core of the most basic need: food.

The region’s food programs also faced challenges. Continuing to serve the community required a steady supply of volunteers, at a time when the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” directive was in place and COVID-19 risks were still not fully understood, a concern for both volunteers and staff.  

Despite all that, longtime Hopelink volunteers Darol and Sandra Reynolds didn’t miss a beat. The couple – who this year celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary – continued to visit Hopelink’s Shoreline center, doing whatever they could to help feed a community in crisis.

Darol is convinced that “working together on something that is meaningful and useful” is one of the secrets to their successful marriage. For a world turned upside down by a global pandemic, there is likely nothing more meaningful than making sure neighbors don’t go hungry.

On Saturdays, the couple visit a local farmers’ market to collect leftover produce for the food bank. On alternate Sundays, they come by to unload a delivery of home-baked bread from the Community Loaves project.

Despite having to co-exist with a virus that seemingly won’t quit, Darol and Sandra are happy they’re able to continue to volunteer.

“That has been a real godsend for us during the pandemic because it’s a place we can go that’s safe,” Sandra says. “And we can do something useful and be active … that’s made all the difference in the world.”

The Reynolds are among about 250 Hopelink volunteers every month who are helping ensure that community members have enough to eat. Adjusting to pandemic restrictions, Hopelink closed its five grocery store-style food banks to the public. Making sure that families would have enough to eat required finding a way to quickly – and safely – distribute food differently.

Staff immediately reconfigured the food program to begin prepacking boxes – based on a menu that included a variety of basic items – with a goal of at least 15 meals per box. By the end of the first week, Hopelink had distributed more than 3,000 boxes of food at outside entrances.

Darol and Sandra Reynolds

In addition to packing boxes and providing food at outside entrances on food bank days, volunteers pick up “grocery rescue” food from local stores, make deliveries to those who are unable to come to a center and sort food that has been donated or purchased.

Early on, the organization prioritized getting food to as many people as possible – pausing the food bank registration process and offering food to anyone who needed it. That system will continue until food banks physically reopen to the public – hopefully early next year.

Meeting ongoing demand requires a sizable crew of regular box packers – currently four shifts of about nine volunteers each – who routinely pack about 2,500 boxes every week. Last year, Hopelink distributed nearly 200,000 boxes of food – the equivalent of nearly 3 million meals – many to people who said they had never before visited a food bank to ask for help.

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The Reynolds are grateful they have been able to continue to serve their community during an unprecedented time, finding ways to make a difference even as coronavirus guidelines and predictions continue to evolve.

But for a couple who were accustomed to interacting with clients when food banks were open to the public, nothing will make them happier than once again seeing their neighbors inside. That’s where they’ve found moments they cherish most: the two young boys who love pizza discovering there’s one left in the freezer, the clients they’re able to help who have special dietary needs, the child with autism who starts eating again when Sandra finds him a special plate. Those moments aren’t the reason they volunteer, but they are clearly one of the rewards.

This year, Darol’s birthday – his 80th – falls on a regular Hopelink volunteer day. It won’t be the first time he’s spent a birthday at the food bank, and it likely won’t be the last. For Darol and Sandra, a day of service is always a day well spent.

To learn more about Hopelink or to learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit www.Hopelink.org.