By Grayson Hester
In a time of racial injustice brought to light and a global pandemic, the world arguably has never needed love more. The light cast by international anti-racism protests shines so brightly that it can often be hard to see the COVID-19 pandemic that still persists—and, in some places, is gaining speed.
But it is important, nonetheless, to highlight the work organizations like Touching Miami With Love (TML) continue to do to stay in touch with their community’s needs. “We consider one of our core values to be ‘strategic and responsive,’” said Angel Pittman, CBF field personnel and vice president emeritus of TML. “As our community continues to evolve, we want to also evolve and meet their needs.”
The communities of which Pittman speaks are Miami’s Overtown and Miami-Dade County’s West Homestead. Both of them are populated predominantly by people of color and, as such, have historically been subject to racist policies that leave them under-resourced, marginalized, and, in a time of coronavirus, particularly vulnerable.
Typically, TML seeks to alleviate poverty in a community-based model that addresses three primary needs—educational support, social/emotional wellness, and spiritual formation/development. But these are not typical times. Since Miami-Dade County, along with the majority of the country’s municipalities, shut down its public services back in March, TML and its staffers have had to address needs they hadn’t considered mere weeks prior.
Their first step was to directly contact the families they serve. And through means not unlike political canvassing—going door-to-door, making personal phone calls—they listened and learned. More than anything, this community, facing job loss, shut-down schools, and heightened income insecurity, needed food distribution and technology access.
“We took another vein of creating and revamping partnerships to include the responses to immediate need, many of which were for food. We have several restaurants and churches we partner with. So, we contacted them and, utilizing their networks, we were able to distribute over 70 pallets of fresh groceries consisting of produce, dairy and vegetables.”
The organization partnered with others to distribute over 400 meals twice per week for eight weeks. Over 4,000 dinner meals have been provided to those who otherwise may struggle to have access to them.
Usually, public schools shoulder the responsibility of feeding children. They also are, in many places, required to distribute technological resources. Despite Miami-Dade schools handing out over 50,000 computers, it still wasn’t enough. To address what some have called “technological apartheid”—which is the disparity of access to computers, tablets, WiFi and other electronics necessary for distance learning—TML got creative. Their first effort was to donate dozens of their own laptop computers. In ordinary times, these were used in their homework assistance and their STEM program. Now, they’re enabling students’ continued education. Their second was to secure funding to boost their WiFi signal, thus turning TML’s West Homestead location into a veritable (and free) hotspot for the community.
And in addition to these new services, TML continues its commitment to provide education and empowerment to its neighborhoods with staff creating over 300 lessons online. For example, its community engagement component saw high school students producing a YouTube video about the importance of voting
At the end of the day, it is not only the physical, tangible needs expressed that need addressing. It’s the underlying fear.
Like most of the rest of the country, Overtown and West Homestead’s residents have faced the same fears and anxieties with which we’ve become all too familiar. The threat of sickness, the insecurity of income, the prospect of positive COVID-19 tests—all these loom large over TML’s communities. But if it is indeed true that love casts out fear, then the efforts undertaken by TML and its community partners have provided a balm in a truly fearsome time.
For example, area churches have responded to the needs in unprecedented ways, Pittman said. Instead of tending solely to their own people, two wealthy congregations have allowed TML not only to tap into their food distribution chains, but to get first pick of the produce.
TML’s staffers, as well, have risen to the challenge in admirable and unique ways. Although their job descriptions did not include delivering meals or boosting WiFi signals or handing out laptops, they did so, in Pittman’s words, “joyfully.” They saw it not as a burden but as a chance to connect with families they otherwise may not have been able to see. This kind of face-to-face interaction can provide reassurance and a bright spot in the day for the families and their often-scared children.
All of this—the churches, the staffers, the renewed connections, the communities—has imbued Pittman, even in these uniquely trying times, with hope. “I’ve been immensely impressed and full of hope with our staff,” she said. “They recognize that it’s not about ‘I’m hired to do this specific job.’ I’m hired to love. Tell me how to love, and I’ll do it.”