‘JSU CARES’: About 1,500 vehicles lined up recently for food, water during outreach aided by community partners, volunteers

(JACKSON, Miss.) — A parade of vehicles began lining up hours before the start of a Community Food Box Giveaway recently that was sponsored by Jackson State University’s Center for Community Engagement along with several major partners that included Amazon affiliates.

Volunteers prepare to load vehicles with non-perishable goods. The event was hosted by Jackson State University’s Center for Community Engagement. (Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU)

JSU, businesses and dozens of campus and community volunteers provided non-perishable goods to 1,500 needy families. The items were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. The weekend drive-up event began at 9 a.m. in the parking lot of Blackburn Middle School on West Pearl Street and ended just after 1 p.m.

The giveaway was supported by the TDC Premier Trucking, LLC, HOSEA, Amazon, Society of St. Andrew, Continental Tires and the People’s Advocacy Institute.

Many residents, some reeling from the financial hardships wrought by the pandemic, waited patiently as volunteers distributed water and food. A number of people picked up bags for the shut-in and others in need throughout various communities.

Dr. Heather Denné, director of JSU’s Center for Community Engagement, got a lot of support from husband Dr. Rod Denné. They handled the logistics for providing assistance to a number of communities. (Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU)

Dr. Heather Denné, director of Community Engagement, said the food giveaway is a part of JSU’s outreach, especially in these challenging times.

“During the pandemic, we’ve just seen people in need, specifically food. If you think about children being at home and learning virtually, the parents are having to come up with three meals a day and two to three snacks – sometimes more.

Also, with the rising cost of food, she said, “This is one way where we can provide a stretch for that grocery bill budget. Typically, we try to do these things once or twice a year. However, because of the pandemic, this is our fifth one this year. So we’re really excited to do it, and it really gives you a good feeling because you know you’re helping out those who are really in need.”

JSU President Thomas K. Hudson and state Rep. Alyce Clarke took part in the food distribution, encouraged volunteers and thanked JSU and its partners. (Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU)

Denné commended all of JSU’s partners for their support. “Most of the food was donated out of Atlanta, and so we’re really excited to be able to provide this bought food to them. We should serve anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 people today alone.”

While Mississippi is considered among the largest food deserts, Denné said the current situation is compounded by the pandemic. “At the end of the day, how do you help the community if they’re not able to meet their basic needs? And so, today, we’re providing access to fresh water, as well as access to fresh food.”

Denné said JSU’s Community Engagement staff has a history of extending its hands. She cites the support provided to those in West Jackson – Washington Addition, Pecan Park Neighborhood Association and Poindexter Park. “With all of these neighborhood associations, we have a great relationship. And, we‘re glad the community showed up for this event.”

JSU partnered with TDC Trucking, which is based in Atlanta. COO Charles Taylor explained his company’s involvement.

“We go around to areas that are in need. We did Houston, Texas, because of the power outage.” He said the organization tries to offer aid monthly,  including holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas by adopting families and supplying gifts,  turkeys and other goods.

“Giving back is one of the most amazing things you can do,” said Taylor, acknowledging that the company’s board chairman reached out to Denné to form a partnership that resulted in the massive giveaway.

The Society of St. Andrew was another partner helping with the day’s event. Over the years, it has been dedicated to JSU’s biannual Crop Drop that also is  sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement.

Leigh Ann Blalock is the Mississippi program coordinator for St. Andrew. She said, “We love working with Jackson State for these events. And when Heather reached out about trying to put this together, we had access to water this time instead of food. So, we got to be a part of it by bringing the water and getting some volunteers out here, too.”

Blalock said people are in desperate need for assistance.

“Many people in our own communities are hungry and need food and especially now with COVID. Many more Mississippians have been affected by hunger and food insecurity. Before COVID, one in four residents of Hinds County didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from. That’s a huge percentage. COVID only magnified the issue. And what it takes is neighbors helping neighbors to solve the problems. Getting all of us out here to work together and feed our own community is what’s going to make an impact.”

Patty Patterson was among dozens volunteering to provide food to the needy. (Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU)

One of the many volunteers was Patty Patterson, a 1986 JSU business graduate. She’s been politically active in Jackson since 2013 and recently was on the ballot for mayor. “No, we didn’t win. But we’re still here. Jackson’s a jewel, and I’ll be sure that Jackson knows that this university exists.”

Patterson said, “I’ve partnered with Heather and her CUBD, Center for University-Based Development, for almost 10 years now. I have been staying engaged with her office by working and getting the community to come out to these events.“

Student volunteer Jay Louis-Jacques was eager to participate. The native of Fort Washington, Maryland, is a junior electrical engineering major. He was representing Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and the National Society of Black Engineers.

“It’s important to give back to the community, especially with food, because of all the shortages and the outbreaks that have been happening since February. As you can see, the cars are just lining up and a lot of people actually need this. This is one step in a great direction.”

Another junior, Ken-Jeffery Harmon, was also happy to be involved. The computer science major from Jackson said, “It’s good giving back to the community.” Although fulfilling his service requirement, he said he would have volunteered even without the credit.

Harmon said residents of Jackson have been hit hard by tragedy. He reflected on the water crisis in February that left people without basic resources. “Now, the water is back on, but people still need more of it and food resources.” Harmon was one of the first to arrive Saturday, helping to set up the sign-in table and gathering books from vans that would be given to kids along with the food.

One volunteer recently moved back to Jackson after 30 years in Atlanta. Cheryl Jones is a retired nurse who began her collegiate experience at JSU. Her family has a deep history with the urban HBCU, where her mother and father both graduated from in 1961. Her father was inducted into the JSU Sports Hall of Fame.

Volunteering and caring for others have been part of her life for decades, and she has even greater plans beyond helping with the food distribution.

“I moved back so I could do some things here. I wanted to give back to the community and help rebuild and revitalize the area around the university. So, my son and I are starting to look at investment properties to help build that community around Jackson State. I think that as a community, there is a lot that we can do to help support the school, the university, the president,” Jones said.

Marge Lairg walked to the event with assistance from John Slater. She said the food will help feed her great-grandson. (Photo by William H. Kelly III/JSU)

Not everyone drove to event. In fact, Marge Lairg used her rolling walker to collect and cart away her food. She traveled from Savannah Street with help from a “gentleman in the community who was nice enough to walk with me and show me how to get here because I kept going around in circles.”

Turning to him, she said, “Thank you so much. You don’t know how much this is appreciated. Thank you so much.”

Lairg said she was getting the food for her great-grandson because his parent is a single mother. “His dad left them when he was just six months old, and she’s trying to make it on her own. I help as much as I can.”