Valencia Breckenridge, the president and CEO of GraceWorks Ministries, and her staff were surprised Monday when four pickup trucks, several vans, a Jeep and a couple SUVs pulled into the parking lot filled with bags of donated food and groceries totaling 4,049 pounds — the same parking lot that nearly two months earlier had been transformed into a drive-thru food pantry.
The vehicles arrived a couple hours after the food distribution ended early because the day’s food had already been given away.
The food piled inside the vehicles was collected in just days by a grassroots Facebook group called Front Line Appreciation Group of Williamson County, or FLAG Wilco, which has a mission to support local restaurants during the COVID-19 era by purchasing meals for those on the frontlines, such as hospital workers, first responders and postal workers in the community.
“We are trying to help family-owned, local restaurants feed frontline first responders, military families and clinical workers,” said Nola Gephart, organizer of the local FLAG group.
Gephart based this group on one formed by her friend in New Jersey, who wanted to “not only bless and serve the frontline workers, but to also support their local restaurants.” Knowing this idea would thrive in Williamson County, Gephart got permission from her friend and created a Facebook page for the group.
Since April 3, FLAG WilCo raised more than $20,000, almost all of which is being spent at local restaurants — nearly 30 so far — to provide meals for workers at Williamson Medical Center, The Baptist Children’s Home, My Friends House and more.
“I had one ... restaurant (owner) near to tears telling me we made it possible for him to stay open,” Gephart said.
Last Wednesday, FLAG Wilco arranged for lunch to be delivered by Delivery Dudes to the staff at GraceWorks. While arranging the lunch, Gephart and co-organizer Vanessa Sokic learned GraceWorks Ministries’ daily food distribution had more than doubled since the quarantine began on March 19 and “the pantry had desperate needs.”
“We put (the need) on our Facebook page and encouraged others to add it to their local neighborhood sites,” said Gephart.
The response was overwhelming. Within less than five days, 1,800 people donated bags of groceries and food. When members of the Page High lacrosse and football teams assisted with loading the bags for delivery, they filled nine vehicles. The Page Patriots joined the crew and assisted with unloading the bags in the GraceWorks parking lot.
“This is the largest food drive since COVID-19 set in for us,” said Alicia Bell, the director of development at GraceWorks.
Since July, GraceWorks has allowed people from neighboring counties to visit the food pantry. Most came from Dickson and Hickman counties. In February, they began seeing people affected by the tornado come in from Nashville, and when COVID-19 hit, the pantry’s need grew more.
“Since March 19, everything changed. It’s been very humbling,” said Bekah Brewer, assistant director of development at GraceWorks.
GraceWorks was already serving an average of 37 families in a normal seven-hour day, but the pandemic grew the numbers to an average of 80 per day with one day reaching 143. GraceWorks reconfigured its parking lot to create a drive-thru distribution service to accommodate the increase while protecting staff and those being served. The team also cut its hours — now 9 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday — and capped those served daily at 80.
“We go through so much food, but each day more comes,” Brewer said. “Valencia calls it ‘manna from heaven’ almost every day because it keeps showing up. It’s community food drives and monetary donations that allow us to purchase from Second Harvest Food Bank or local grocery stores and continue to provide.”
These days, half the people served are new to GraceWorks, Bell added.
“A lot of them we’re helping over a hurdle, but there are folks whose hurdle will last a little longer,” she added.
To make it easier to donate food and groceries to the food pantry during these times, the staff recently created an Amazon wish list for food. Once ordered, the items will be sent directly to the food pantry. Food can be purchased for the pantry at graceworksministries.net/food-pantry-needs, and cash donations can be made at graceworksministries.net/donate or mailed to 104 Southeast Parkway in Franklin.
“Williamson County has been an absolutely amazing partner,” Gephart said. “The generosity is incredible.”
For more information about the FLAG group, visit facebook.com/groups/flagwilco.