Tucked away in the far northeast corner of Wake County is the small town of Zebulon. Home to just about 6,000 residents, Zebulon is the smallest town in the county. It’s size and remote location means it is oft forgotten when county programs and resources are doled out, despite it having the highest poverty rate and the largest percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
When schools closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, this could have been disastrous for the town’s large proportion of families who rely on school meals to feed their children. For the residents who struggled to keep their heads just above the poverty line in the lower middle class, losing their job (or jobs) could have been catastrophic for themselves and their families… but it wasn’t.
The night the announcement was made that schools in North Carolina would be closing, Zebulon United Methodist Church opened its fellowship hall doors and a community feeding program was born. With a close-knit group of volunteers administering the program, the effort operated solely through donations from church members, businesses, residents, and other area churches. During the first 4 months, beginning before any other state or county program was up and operating, over 22,000 meals were distributed to those in need.
Not long into its inception, the town’s Parks and Recreation Department was welcomed aboard. They worked hard to put together packets of activities to go home with children to help keep them engaged in learning and combat the loneliness and isolation that many were feeling in quarantine. A true community effort created from the love and compassion of Zebulon UMC helped the entire town during a time of dire need.
The program wrapped up at the end of July, as the ZUMC Food Pantry re-opened, but there was still significant need in the community. In August, Wake County developed a Food Hub program aimed at helping families bridge the gap and ensure nutritious food was available to those still struggling to navigate the pandemic. Through the work of a town Commissioner and the full support of the ZUMC, funds were secured through the CARES ACT and Wake County to run a 10-month program to provide fresh vegetables, shelf stable products, meats, and other resources, utilizing space in the church’s Mission House and adjacent parking lot. The total funds secured were in excess of $200,000 with additional resources valued at over $50,000.
Another bold step was to host a COVID vaccine clinic, which occurred on February 16, 2021, in the church’s Fellowship Hall. Two more clinics were held in March. Because of these three clinics, 335 vaccines were given. Of course, volunteers from the entire community were involved, and we appreciate all they did. A very special thanks goes to Dr. Adam Wolk, Senior Medical Officer of Alignment HealthCare NC; Shannon Baxter, Zebulon Town Commissioner; and Dr. Casey Baldwin of Resources for Seniors NC for their vision, hard work, flexibility and commitment to bring these clinics to fruition. They helped our church to get into high gear and meet a most timely need in our community.
Along with the bi-monthly food distribution and delivery through the Hub, an event was put together on March 27, 2021 that provided literature and resources about programs available in Wake County as well as a COVID diagnostic opportunity. The pandemic and subsequent quarantine illustrated the precarious financial position that many of the community’s families lived in, and with much of the community’s poor and lower middle class working in fields that had been shut down, the need to help connect families with resources was emergent. On that day, two tractor-trailer loads of food arrived from the Food Bank of North Carolina, free car-side COVID-19 testing was offered, along with a resource bag including information on resources for seniors, Meals on Wheels, More in My Basket, Wake County Smart Start, The Poe Center, Wake County 4-H, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Free Library, Wake County Public Libraries, Eastern Regional Center, as well as a coloring book for kids about coping with COVID. Families were given a full month’s worth of food. Ambassadors from Wake Up and Read, Alliance Health, Americorps, and Wake County Medicaid were present to answer questions and guide people toward the programs they needed. Over 300 families were served and 60 COVID tests were administered in just two hours. The remaining food was donated to the Food Pantry to help bolster their efforts. Officials from Wake County, the Town of Zebulon, and the Zebulon UMC all participated in the event and were grateful for its success.
As the pandemic has stretched out through one full year and into the next, several more area churches have joined in the effort but none to the extent of Zebulon UMC. Their willingness to put together feeding programs at a moment’s notice and to allow them to continue during the entire shutdown and beyond, has highlighted to love the compassion that is ZUMC. Regardless of race, regardless of religion, the spirit of the church truly embodies the teaching of Jesus, to love and serve all.
—Submitted by the Rev. Liz Hounshell and Shannon Baxter