NEW YORK – On a recent day, a powder-blue van parked curbside in Brooklyn, one of the hardest-hit communities in America by the coronavirus pandemic, and a group of women wearing protective face masks and gloves set to unloading.
Locals lined up, spaced out next to orange traffic cones on the sidewalk, waiting their turn to pick up much-needed free supplies that help them make it through what are tough times for the borough.
“We go to areas where we’re needed most. Today ... we handed out food, all kinds of food, canned food, squash, coffee, crackers, adult and baby diapers,” said driver Denise Rodriguez, 26. “We handed out condoms — all essential stuff.”
Known as Sistas Van and sponsored by the nonprofit Black Women’s Blueprint, in normal times the vehicle serves survivors of sexual trauma and domestic violence. In times of pandemic, its mission has shifted to delivering donated resources in New York to individuals and communities in need.
Twice a week Rodriguez, a Black Women's Blueprint employee, drives three hours from her home in the Bronx pick up the van in New Jersey before returning to Brooklyn to make the rounds. Three volunteers and an intern — Rodriguez calls them her “dream team” — meet her to help set up the table and hand out goods.
One of them is Brooklyn Clayton, who moved home with family in New York after the coronavirus's economic fallout left her “housing- and food-insecure” where she lived in Philadelphia: “COVID-19 hit Philly in the same ways it hit Brooklyn,” she said.
Clayton linked up with Sistas Van just five days after arriving and now volunteers her time “making sure that everybody is receiving the minimum: food, shelter, water and air.”
Volunteer Sequaña Williams-Hechavarria, who was laid off from a digital marketing agency in March due to COVID-19 budget cuts, said she has been hurt both financially and emotionally by the pandemic.
“My whole life, the community has always shown up for me regardless of whether I ask for it or not,” Williams-Hechavarria said. “Doing stuff like this helps me to feel really great about the communities that have always supported me.”
In front of a shuttered sporting goods store at a busy intersection, the women loaded the table with food, diapers, face coverings and other items. It wasn't long before people snapped up nearly everything except some books, condoms and feminine hygiene products.
At a second stop, beneath a bustling transit hub in central Brooklyn, the line was much longer. Lauren Daraio, who is homeless, said the free toiletries and food were most welcome.
“The epidemic is hard,” Daraio said. “You’ve got to figure out where to eat every day and where to sleep. A lot of places aren’t taking people.”
Several men stuffed packages of Ritz crackers into their pockets, thanked the women and were on their way. The crew scrubbed the table, sprayed everything with a strong disinfectant and broke it all down for reloading into the van.
Rodriguez said the operation is focusing primarily on vulnerable sectors of society: “lower-income, black and brown families, undocumented families, trans-communities,” and helps fill the gaps where people are underserved by government.
“We know that they’re going through a hard time. I don’t want people to feel alone,” she said. “So this van is a great way to see people, smile and share time with them, but also give them the things that they need.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through the Religion News Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for this content.