A MIGHTY PIVOT When the virus came to town, Mighty Writers immediately broadened its mission.
Hannah Rodriguez Director, MW El Futuro
Onward p. 3 Tim Whitaker
The minute the virus came to town, Mighty Writers broadened its mission Kalela Williams
Service by the Numbers
In 2020, our goals included supporting those in our Mighty communities by providing the stuff of life
Our Mighty Benefactors Thanks to you, we're keeping more kids — and families — Mighty.
Onward Tim Whitaker
When Covid hit in March 2020, we immediately closed all our Mighty Writers centers, where we teach writing to kids seven to 17. All our centers are located in generous but economically challenged communities— five in Philadelphia, one in Camden, NJ, and another in Chester County, where we teach literacy skills to the children of farmworkers.
149,000 meals, 468,000 diapers, 30,100 boxes of groceries— not to mention countless books, baby formula, wipes, gloves, masks… and Tootsie Pops by the score, our Mighty trademark. At the same time, we created a remote learning writing curriculum. Among the 20 classes offered were favorites like Girl Power!, Mindfulness Meet Up, Mighty Brotherhood, and Family Cook Night. This spring, we’ve got a whole new lineup of dynamic writing workshops. All free, of course.
Many of our Mighty parents work in service industries, which is why many found themselves out of work due to the virus almost immediately. You can't think clearly or write with clarity if you're hungry. To help, we began handing out lunches for kids at the front doors of our centers. The need grew, and we found ways to distribute groceries for families, then diapers, sanitizer and masks. Before long, distributing food and other essentials was becoming a big part of our mission, so we reimagined our staff to meet the growing need. We hired a distribution manager, added two associates, and moved schedules around for most every MW employee. You can’t think clearly and write with clarity if you’re hungry. By the end of 2020, we had distributed
How are the Mighty kids coping? Like all of us, they just want their lives back. We do our best to hear them out. We give them the room and respect to verbalize what they’re feeling, knowing that most of the answers to their questions remain largely unknowable. When it comes to tough years, 2020 takes grand prize. But despite the brutal start, we’re hopeful that 2021 will bring better news. Whatever the case, we’ll be prepared to pivot as necessary to keep things Mighty.
Tim Whitaker is the executive director of Mighty Writers. 3
Pivoting Mightily The refashioning of our Mighty mission in March of 2020 to include distributing food and essential supplies came fast and furious. It’s being built to last. Kalela Williams Brightly colored awnings of red, green and white stretch overhead as buyers and sellers mill around tables filled with crates of produce on this late afternoon weekday in the city’s iconic 9th Street Market. “How much for this?” and “¿Cuánto cuesta?” customers ask as they squeeze oranges, sort through boxes of potatoes, examine cartons of berries. On a narrow side street just off 9th, a line of people that stretches down the block hums with conversation as young mothers chat with elderly couples and children in puffy jackets play made-up games with other kids. Behind a table, staffers and volunteers for Mighty Writers work quickly, as they do every day, passing out boxes of food and diapers. At this Mighty Writers location, as in all of them, no one needs ask how much anything costs. Instead, the talk centers on health: “How are you doing?” and “¿Cómo has estado?” This Mighty Writers’ food distribution site is tucked just behind the hustle of
"We are a collective community." —Hannah Rodriguez, Director, MW El Futuro 4
the market. But Hannah Rodriguez, the site’s coordinator, says the market adds liveliness and a sense of “collective community.” In the neighborhood surrounding this MW site, called El Futuro, word of mouth quickly spreads about MW’s free fresh food and supplies program.
"No one needs to ask how much anything costs."
In addition to our 9th Street location, there are four other food distribution sites operated by Mighty Writers—MW in North Philadelphia, MW West Philadelphia, MW Kennett Square and MW Camden. Each site is staffed by a coordinator, and all are managed collectively by Austin Clarkston, Mighty Writers’ director of distribution.
Hannah laughs remembering how an elderly customer took a shine to a Mighty Writer intern and began bringing him gifts each week. Once it was fresh strawberries, another time a soccer jersey, and once it was even a whole crab, steamed and ready for him to bring home for dinner.
A Mission Alteration at Mighty Writers MW Distribution Director Austin Clarkson, who has a business management degree from Howard University, joined the MW team in April 2020, bringing a background of community service with him. “My Mom would always preach to us to give back,” he says. In the early days of the food distribution project, Austin says, no one knew what to expect.
"The need for food in MW’s communities is growing." —Austin Clarkson, MW's Director of Distribution.
But now, with five MW sites running full tilt, the need for food in MW’s communities continues to grow. Too many are falling ill with covid or have seen their jobs and livelihoods disappear. 5
Unlike some food pantries that require ID, or ask a series of questions, Austin says Mighty Writers only asks for kindness and consideration for others in line. Paperwork, he says, can make a lot of our communities feel unsafe. As community need has grown, so too have MW’s challenges to secure food donations. In the beginning, it was easier, Austin says. The Nutritional Development Association, which had provided lunches for Mighty Writer kids, provided full meals. Austin also sourced food from the USDA and other entities and organizations. Now, many of these resources are disappearing. “We might have a resource coming in for a month,” he says, “and then it’s gone.”
Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection in West Philly Mighty Writers in West Philadelphia, like El Futuro in the 9th Street Market, distributes food every weekday at noon. Christina Rissell, program director in West Philadelphia and MW’s first volunteer when the nonprofit launched in 2009, says her role at Mighty Writers is always evolving, “but West Philly has turned out to be the most comfortable place for me to be.”
"I've found greater mission since the start of the food distribution program." —Christina Rissell, Director, MW West Philadelphia
Working in food distribution has Christina thinking there’s an “abundance mindset” in the West Philly community. As people accept food and resources, she says, they try to give back, whether with a smile or a how-youdoing: “There’s always a sense of friendship.” Christina describes how one of her colleagues drove in from the suburbs to volunteer and brought her son. Another child, whose family was waiting in line began a game of football with him and now the two hang out online, virtual buddies. One couple met in line, exchanged
phone numbers, began dating, and promised to invite Christina to their wedding. “As much as we give out, we’re receiving,” Christina says. Christina knows about need first-hand. Like some families who line up at Mighty Writers’ West each day, her own family was on public assistance when she grew up. Her mother, who worked in restaurants, would bring leftovers home and rent out rooms "It feels so personal, and so big at the same time." in their family’s home for people who were also in challenging situations. Christina remembers watching her Mom “provide a space and place for people that needed things.” She knows that receiving free goods can mean admitting vulnerability: “It’s not always comfortable knowing you need to ask for help.” But Christina believes in meeting people where they are and offering light without judgement. She says she’s found greater mission in what she does since the food distribution program launched: “It feels so personal, and so big at the same time.
A Sense of Pride Hangs Over Mighty Writers Camden Across the bridge, in Camden, New Jersey, MW site coordinator Catherine Buck says the people she encounters have “a strong sense of Camden identity and pride.” Originally from Burlington, NJ, a short ride away, Catherine joined Mighty Writers in the summer of 2019. Catherine travelled for service projects during college and worked in El Paso, Texas, for a year, where "I tell people this is my dream job." she learned Spanish. Working with Mighty Writers has gotten her more engaged with her community, she says, bringing her mask-to-mask with people from all over the city as word of MW’s food distribution program has spread in both the city’s English- and Spanish-speaking communities. One day not long ago, during the week of Thanksgiving, Mighty Writers was offering boxes of collard greens, potatoes, carrots and a truck full of frozen turkeys. Catherine efficiently assigned tasks to volunteers and colleagues. Families, many who clustered outside for hours before distribution began, lined 7
up to gather produce before grabbing heavy, mesh-wrapped turkeys. A smiling teenager tells Catherine she’s excited to cook a turkey for the first time, under her mother’s tutelage. “I tell people this is my dream job,” Catherine says. “The best moments on the distribution line come with kids and the books,” she says. One child, who she got to know through the distribution line, but had never attended a Mighty writing workshop, recently won one of MW’s writing contests. His mother received the email notifying his accomplishment while they were in line. Another day, she recalls, an expectant mother mentioned to a volunteer that she needed a stroller. Next day, one somehow appeared. The need will continue, Catherine says. She’s seen how sixty bags of meals one week can quickly double the next. Fresh produce isn’t always easy to come by, and Catherine is seeing supply challenges. Diaper days, she says, draw the most people. Families are constantly running through diapers. When she gives out bags of diapers, she says she thinks of the babies who will be wearing them: “I’m picturing… how these
"The best moments on the distribution line come when kids are picking out books." —Catherine Buck, Director, MW Camden
babies will someday be a new generation of Mighty Writers.”
Food for the Soul in Kennett Square At Kennett Square, food distribution is greatly anticipated by members of the community, says Sara Dickens-Trillo, MW’s bilingual program leader who began with Mighty Writers in the fall of 2019. Many of the Spanish-speaking families in her distribution line, she says, pick mushrooms in this “mushroom 8
capital of the world,” as Kennett Square bills itself. They also, Sara adds, might work in restaurants or landscaping. Many community members are Mexican, but there are also new migrants from Guatemala and other parts of Central America. Sara is familiar with the lives that her community members left behind. She grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, the eighth of nine children. Her family struggled, but her mother prized "You have no idea how much I needed this." education. “She took a leap of faith,” Sara says of her mother, who always thought ahead, first moving her family to Juarez near the border, then later to El Paso. Eventually Sara married and settled in California. When she learned her husband’s job would require another move, she told him: “Please don’t take me somewhere where I’m not going to be able to speak Spanish.” In Kennett Square, Sara is the vice-president of Casa Guanajuato, a nonprofit that focuses on Mexican culture; she is also a board member at La Communidad, a health center network. She sees these roles as complementing her work with Mighty Writers, because all three organizations teach kids “not to forget their roots and where they come from.” Sara has always known that her community had needs, but MW’s food distribution program has made her aware of how stark the reality can be. She
"We're feeding bodies and souls." —Sara Dickens-Trillo, Director, MW El Futuro-Kennett Square
describes the choices families have to make between rent versus food, or a ride to work versus food. On food distribution days, people are overwhelmingly grateful “because they’re receiving something… that every household should have.” Simple items like a pack of tortillas, a bag of potatoes, oil and soup—all can create a meal that can serve a family, Sara says. During the week of Thanksgiving, MW’s Kennett Square program provided families with food for two weeks. As one mother opened her trunk to load her groceries, she erupted into tears, telling Sara, “You have no idea how much I needed this.” Having needs met with no questions asked is especially meaningful for the migrant community, who can be made to feel they don’t belong. But Mighty Writers welcomes everyone, Sara says. “I like to think we’re feeding their soul as much as we’re feeding their tummy.”
North Philadelphia’s Poetic Energy In North Philadelphia, people hold onto a resilient spirit, a sense of investment in their neighborhood.
"If people go to our food distribution line and find family, that's the best we can give." —Naimah Cann, Director, MW North Philadelphia
A poetic energy, as Naimah Cann describes it. Raised in Philadelphia’s Overbrook neighborhood, Naimah’s father was a social worker who often took her along while he did his work. Weekends were often spent cleaning up litter, planting trees and staffing canned goods and toy drives. She sees her work with Mighty Writers as things coming full circle. As MW’s community relations guru, Naimah Cann sees herself as “the eyes and ears” of the
organization. She thrives on connecting with people and working to find food resources. She says North Philadelphia gives her a sense of purpose. Naimah says the crisis has revealed the different ways the North Philadelphia community is struggling. She knows about the hurt. She has lost five people close to her due to Naimah knows hurt. She's lost five people to Covid. covid. Naimah’s charisma is in full view when she chats with people in line, talking about poetry and writing, or whatever else is on her mind. One young woman she met in line now volunteers with her— telling Naimah she feels like part of the family. The feeling is mutual. “If people can go to our distribution center and find family,” Naimah says, “That’s the greatest gift we can give.”
“A Chance to Feel Seen When It’s So Easy to Feel Alone” Though Mighty Writers’ neighborhoods may sometimes differ culturally, it’s the similarities that are so striking. Patrons are grateful for the resources, but they also give back when they can and leave with more than boxes of produce or bags of diapers. “They come away with a chance to feel seen when it’s so easy to feel alone,” says Rachel Loeper, MW’s education director. “They find acknowledgement, knowing they’re not just a number.” “These communities are going to remember Mighty Writers long after the pandemic,” says distribution director Austin Clarkson. “They’ll remember who was there for them when they were at their lowest.”
Kalela Williams is MW'S Director of Writing. 11
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