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Volunteers live ‘faith through action’ by serving communities during the pandemic

Zach Stoddard lays out seed tape as he helps Jody Harrison, Webelos den leader, plant a community garden at Family Promise in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. Congregants from Trinity United Methodist and Boy Scouts planted the garden.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — They showed up at the offices of Family Promise Salt Lake on a Tuesday afternoon.

The group of about 25 people included members of Trinity United Methodist Church in West Valley City and and some Cub Scouts. In a spirit of teaching the basics of gardening, the adults helped the young children to prepare the soil in the center’s community garden boxes. They planted various vegetables and flowers, then a few boys wearing face masks carried around a green can to water the freshly planted seeds.

At one point, a boy named Zach Stoddard made an insightful observation.

“It’s like the peas need to be socially distanced,” he said.

The service project is one of example of how some church volunteer groups associated with faith-based social service organizations are making a difference in Utah communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The church volunteers come each year to plant the community garden but are behind this year because of all that has transpired with COVID-19. The fresh produce from the garden goes to benefit families in their shelter system, said Wendy Kelly, executive director of Family Promise Salt Lake.

Family Promise works with various partners in the Utah faith community to help homeless families get off the street and take steps toward long-term stability. Each week a family finds shelter in a different host congregation, where they have a place to sleep, shower, wash laundry, eat meals and mentoring.

The coronavirus forced Family Promise to make some changes, but it still found safe places for the families to stay during the lockdown. Volunteers from different church groups have continued to provide the needed resources, the executive director said.

“We’ve been blessed,” Kelly said. “It’s a beautiful example of different faiths, different backgrounds, different economic levels, coming together to support their communities and neighbors who are experiencing homelessness.”

Interfaith volunteer Sheldon Hatch works at Hildegarde’s Food Pantry at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 29, 2020. The pantry partners with several local organizations to bring food to about 2,000 households a month.
Interfaith volunteer Sheldon Hatch works at Hildegarde’s Food Pantry at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 29, 2020. The pantry partners with several local organizations to bring food to about 2,000 households a month.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

While some Utah food pantries closed or discontinued external volunteer programs over COVID-19 concerns, Hildegarde’s Food Pantry at St. Mark’s Cathedral remained open during thanks to volunteer support from various area churches, said Lydia Herrera, the pantry’s supervisor.

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10 or more volunteers show up to sort food, load boxes and pass them out to a long line of cars. Volunteers will continue be involved in June as the pantry temporarily closes to reorganize, clean, add signs and plexiglass barriers and implement other safety improvements.

Herrera admires the volunteers for their dedication.

“They are like my little heroes,” she said. “They are committed to the pantry and helping others amazes me, and without fear of getting sick themselves.”

Bill Downes, a volunteer and chairman of pantry’s advisory committee, said the diligence of the volunteers, “an ecumenical group,” over the last three months has been impressive.

“Without them our pantry would not survive,” Downes said. “They have been an incredible resource for us over the years.”

While serving at the pantry last week, Downes was reminded again why he does it.

“What always moves me is how appreciative our clients are and what a difference it makes to be able to support them in this difficult time. You know, that’s what faith is all about, helping the less fortunate,” Downes said. “It’s nice to live your faith through action. That’s why I volunteer and that’s why I’m always touched by people’s gratitude when we’re able to help them through this difficult time.”

Interfaith volunteer Joseph Garcia works at Hildegarde’s Food Pantry at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 29, 2020. The pantry partners with several local organizations to bring food to about 2,000 households a month.
Interfaith volunteer Joseph Garcia works at Hildegarde’s Food Pantry at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 29, 2020. The pantry partners with several local organizations to bring food to about 2,000 households a month.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

On April 17, Latter-day Saint Charities partnered with Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health and asked for 50,000 volunteers to make 5 million medical-grade masks for health care workers in Utah. The campaign was called ProjectProtect.

Within 62 hours, as many as 10,000 volunteers responded, including Michelle Porcelli, a wife and mother from Alpine.

“We know the value of healthy bodies and healthy minds,” she said. “Basically, we want to help others feel safe.”

Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller was among the 20,000 volunteers who helped to sew 2 million masks during the first two weeks of the project. Utah’s public, private and nonprofit universities and college joined in a few weeks later.

“It’s exciting for me to have a little bit of a hand in helping health care workers, because I’m in that critical age where I don’t want to go outside. I want to be very careful, so this gives me an opportunity to do service and feel useful,” said Miller, who is chairwoman of the board of trustees of Intermountain Healthcare, in a video posted on YouTube.

By May 30, organizers announced that not only had they had reached their goal of 5-million masks, but the project also produced 100,000 face shields and almost 100,000 reusable gowns.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the help of other people and community service organizations in Las Vegas, assembled more than 700 kits of hygiene and other basic supplies to send to the Navajo reservation on May 27, according to JustServe.org.

Volunteers haven’t been able to join Good News Jail and Prison Ministry during the pandemic, but the chaplains have continued to serve at the Salt Lake County Metro Jail, according to Chaplain Ken Stearn.

In addition to an increased demand for Bibles and other books, the chaplains have spent more time ministering to the officers and guards, the chaplain said.

“Normally they are a guarded bunch. ... They are very stressed out. Most of them put in an unbelievable amount of hours to keep the jail safe. They did a lot to keep the pandemic from getting in here,” Stearn said. “We go around talking with them and encouraging them.”

Finally, several groups of volunteers showed up at various public locations in downtown Salt Lake City Sunday to help clean up graffiti and vandalism inflicted by protesters the previous day. Jason Terry and his family were among those who stepped up.

“We originally just came to clean up some garbage, but we came up here and saw the spray paint and just decided to do it,” Terry said.