ALIVE! celebrates 50 years

ALIVE! recently began serving Torti masa harina flour to appeal to hispanic clients. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

By Luke Anderson |

There were few resources for Alexandrians living in poverty in the 1960s. At the time, there were no local institutions united in helping those who were less fortunate.

In 1968, poor people from across the country protested their living conditions by setting up camp on the National Mall as part of the Poor People’s Campaign, organized by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination.

The next year, in May 1969, a group of concerned Alexandrians from several churches met to discuss how they could “re-emphasize the role, and renew the efforts, of the local churches in providing assistance to people in need.” The group formed a nonprofit organization called ALIVE!, which loosely stands for “Alexandrians Involved Ecumenically!”

Volunteers Susan Pollack and Russ Koenig help unload and organize supplies for the December Last Saturday Food Distribution at Leonard “Chick” Armstrong Recreation Center. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

In the first year, 17 faith congregations joined the organization. Since then, ALIVE! has grown and expanded its efforts, becoming the largest safety net for those living in poverty in Alexandria. Today, ALIVE! consists of 42 faith congregations, as well as many other community partners throughout the city. This year, the organization celebrated 50 years of assisting those in need.

For the organization’s 25th anniversary, Eleanor S. Wainstein documented its history in a short memoir. She wrote that when ALIVE! first began, “[c]alls for food came in daily, and volunteer drivers made 230 deliveries during the first year. In fiscal year 1994, 2,958 deliveries were made.”

Major chains, including Giant and Safeway, often donated food. Former ALIVE! President Elaine Peoples remembered storing the food under the stairs in her home, she wrote in a speech delivered in 1989.

Various other branches provided coverage of other areas of need. With the volunteers and funds at hand, the organization collected donated furniture, houseware and clothing and provided clients with transportation and assistance with bills.

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ALIVE! House was established in 1972 and remains the oldest operating transitional shelter for women and families in Alexandria. The same year, ALIVE! started the Child Development Center, which provides care and education for children ages three to five from low-income families. This allowed their parents to work and become more financially stable.

Despite its abundant services, ALIVE! faced growing pains and challenges from the beginning.

“Over the past few years not only have the problems and needs confronting us changed, but ALIVE’s role in the community also has gradually changed,” Peoples wrote in the 1980 annual report.

An illustration of ALIVE! House in “The History of 125 South Payne Street” by Ruth Lincoln Kaye – April 1990. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

She said the organization had lost some of its intimacy “due to several factors, particularly the availability of more public and private services to help with counseling and referral. In addition, the increase in the number of women [entering the workforce], as well as other demands on people’s time, have lessened volunteer participation.”

In the early ‘80s, ALIVE! faced cutbacks in public funding under the Reagan Administration, and demand for services dramatically increased. The organization had to cut down on how and to whom it provided assistance. The Child Development Center was forced to turn children away for the first time.

To minimize this, ALIVE! raised money by putting together fundraisers, such as a book sale and walkathon. The walkathon became an annual tradition benefiting the Child Development Center; this past May marked the 38th Annual StepALIVE! Walkathon.

ALIVE!’s executive director Jennifer Ayers said that the Child Development Center absorbs funds more than most of the other programs largely because it is a nationally accredited program with a highly qualified director and licensed teachers brought on as paid employees.

“Those kids really, I think, come out with an excellent Pre-K [education] — they’re ready to go,” Ayers said.

Within the last couple years, the organization has turned certain volunteer roles into paid positions. Ann Patterson was hired as the food program director in August after volunteering for several decades. Now that she is being paid to work for ALIVE!, she can afford to put all her energy into making improvements.

“I’m paid to analyze the program, to figure out what’s the best use,” Patterson said. “If we only have this much money, how can we serve the most people with the best food that they want in the most efficient location? Making those kinds of analyses has not been part of a lot of ALIVE!’s programs because it’s been an all-volunteer workforce.”

Patterson is in charge of Last Saturday, an end-of-the-month food distribution event at three different sites. As program director, she’s been advocating for every person to get the same type of food and implementing strategies to make the food selection more culturally appropriate.

Boxes of USDA certified food cover the tables inside the recreation center. (Photo/Luke Anderson)

From speaking with Hispanic clients, she learned that they often prefer to skip canned soups and vegetables and receive larger portions of foods more common in their culture. She now orders masa harina flour and an increased supply of rice and dried beans for distribution sites where she knows there is a higher Hispanic population.

On the other end of the spectrum, elderly clients prefer foods that are easier to prepare, Patterson noted. At the distribution site at Ladrey Senior Apartments on Wythe Street, she orders more canned soup, vegetables, cereal and shelf-stable milk.

Patterson said these strategies are more efficient than serving everyone the same food.

“If they don’t eat it, then it didn’t help at all,” she said.

Volunteers Susan Pollack and Russ Koenig, who help with Last Saturday at Leonard “Chick” Armstrong Recreation Center on Reed Avenue, said that they have formed relationships with many clients who come for food each month.

“Part of the reason we do this at the end of the month is [because] we know that’s when people’s paychecks are running out. Rent’s been paid and this is the hardest time,” Koenig said.

“Rent’s just so high here and food is often the thing people would start to skimp on,” Pollack added.

ALIVE! still has a real connection with the communities it serves and a huge impact on the city, Ayers said.

“There are 16,000 people in the city who are hungry and we try to get food to as many people as we can,” she said. “If we weren’t here — you know, we distribute 44,000 tons of food a year — what would those people do?”

At a legislative meeting last month, city council issued a proclamation acknowledging ALIVE!’s 50th anniversary.

“ALIVE! is the closest thing we have to an essential organization in our city,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “You guys fill so many important needs for residents in need in our community, and we certainly appreciate you doing it. We look forward to celebrating another 50 years.”

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