The field of dreams was a parking lot on Sunday, Dec. 13, but a Zachary native known as “Lil Pete” believed if he cooked there, they would come. Fueled by the loss of his father, Pete Williams, and a desire to impact his community, Jermaine Williams and a team of family members set out on a mission to boost morale and meet needs.
“Cooking was my daddy’s thing,” he said. “God kind of gave me that gift so I want to keep it going and keep his name alive.”
Community outreach took on new faces and new methods as a year of unprecedented need drew to a close. Groups like the Zachary Men’s Club mixed COVID-19 testing with holiday meal giveaways and families discovered that combining efforts can magnify results .
Jermaine Williams said he was inspired to give back while reading a Zachary Facebook page thread authored by Sarah Jones looking for people to help with outreach efforts. “I asked if I could get involved and how,” he said. “She asked if I could do some beans and I said ‘Oh, yes, I can do some red beans.' ”
Jermaine Williams assembled his crew of family members, including his wife and three cousins. They prepared more than 200 meals distributed in the parking lot of St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church. The next week, the Williams crew brought their mobile kitchen to St. Vincent de Paul and the Melrose East neighborhood in Baton Rouge. “We're going to be at St. Vincent de Paul feeding the homeless, and we're giving out special things to the kids,” Williams said. “God gave special blessings for the kids as well.”
Jermaine Williams hopes his mobile kitchen will grow and give him more opportunities to give back. “I'm looking forward one day to getting the food trailer fully loaded and be able to come back to my home to feed people,” he said. “We're going to stay mobile and with my family — my wife and my cousins — they've been a blessing to me, and I thank God and Father Ashley because this has been successful.”
Jones and her husband used Jones Community Outreach to form volunteer collaborations. The pandemic has put new restrictions and strains on resources and teamwork was key. “I knew there was a need and I heard some organizations weren't doing much because of COVID and I knew how to incorporate technology and do it remotely," Jones said.
Jones Community Outreach partnered with St. Patrick’s to get Christmas gifts to 85 local children. “We've partnered with St. Patrick's and Pete Williams BBQ has been awesome enough to feed the people and anybody who was able to swing by got food,” she said.
The St. Patrick’s Angel Tree was not a new effort, but the angel volunteers had to conquer lots of pandemic obstacles to make the effort successful and safe. The virtual Angel Tree employed a no-contract drop-off and the wish lists were communicated with QR code scanning. “It takes you to a Google form,” Jones said. “You tell them you know how many kids you want to sponsor if you have an age preference or a gender preference, and we send you them and this is how they're dropping it off with no contact. COVID is actually inspiring us to be a little bit creative.”
Jessica Leet, of St. Patrick’s, was able to find all the donors. “We found the families in need and made this possible remotely by utilizing technology and social media,” Jones said. “The response has been overwhelming. I posted in Zachary Rants and Raves asking for anyone who couldn’t afford their child’s presents this year to contact me via messenger.”
The Angel Tree effort reached 90 children and 33 families.
Reaching families was also the focus of the Zachary Men’s Club. The group decided to take a proactive stance on the pandemic while also carrying out a traditional community outreach. On Dec. 16, the club hosted a mobile testing clinic and a holiday food basket giveaway.
Men’s Club president Bill Johnson said turkeys and hams were given out and Southeast Community Health Clinic offered rapid COVID-19 testing that offered results in 45 minutes.
Henry Bell coordinated the event and said it was important that the outreach met the unique demands of the moment. “This particular time of the year, there are so many people feeling the crush of the pandemic and the economic shutdowns,” Bell said. “A lot of people are out of jobs and food is slack so we are trying to do the best we could for the community because so many people are hurting.”