Two volunteers sift through boxes filled with vegetables while putting together care packages for community members. Santiago Ochoa
Boxes and pallets line the sidewalk of the Hasselbring Senior Center parking lot. Santiago Ochoa
Bonnie Grass stands behind a table handing out feminine hygiene products. Throughout the day, community members gave her money as a birthday present which she clipped on to her shirt. Santiago Ochoa
During midday and under the 90-degree sun, volunteers continued helping anyone who drove down the distribution line. Santiago Ochoa
Holly Wilson from the Neighborhood Engagement Hub holds up reading material being handed out to all community members who attended the drive-thru event. Santiago Ochoa
FLINT, Michigan — Bonnie Grass spent the morning of her 70th birthday handing out hygiene products, produce, and water in 90-degree weather to over 125 residents of Brownell-Holmes and the surrounding area.
Grass, president of The Friends of Hasselbring Park, collaborated with the Hasselbring Senior Center to host the Community Essentials Drive Thru Event. The event was postponed at first due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, statistics began to show how predominantly Black communities like Brownell-Holmes were being disproportionately affected by the virus. This led Grass and her community partners to rethink the event and incorporate pandemic educational resources into it.
The event, which was sponsored by over a dozen local organizations including the Neighborhood Engagement Hub (NEH) and the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, was centered on keeping all involved safe and at a distance.
It consisted of a distribution line in the senior center’s parking lot, which allowed community members to simply drive through the parking lot as volunteers placed care packages inside their trunks or back seats.
A team of approximately 25 volunteers distributed care packages to over 125 community members over the course of a few hours. Towers of hundreds of boxes filled with vegetables, pastries, bottled water, and fruits teetered in the wind as volunteers maneuvered around them.
“What better way to spend my birthday than [by] giving back to people that need, to help somebody, to teach them, to give them information on how to combat this disease?” Grass says.
Grass adopted Hasselbring Park in 1967. Since then, she and The Friends of Hasselbring Park, in conjunction with other local partners like the NEH, have overseen many park improvements. The most recent projects have included adding new playgrounds, picnic tables, and landscaping and resurfacing the park’s baseball diamond.
Aside from the food and hygiene product distribution at the event, tables were set up along the parking lot’s lawn where visitors could speak to volunteers about COVID-19 best practices and receive census and voter registration information.
According to Grass, a healthy and informed community is better able to make its voices heard. She says she wants to make sure residents are “staying safe, keeping their distance, and washing their hands so they can go out and vote and take the census."
"This stuff is important to me and I want to try to share with the community so we can make everything we do count," she says. "It means a lot to me.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the northside of Flint particularly hard. According to the Genesee County Health Department, as of press time the two ZIP codes Brownell-Holmes sits between, 48504 and 48505, have made up 19.1% of the county’s cases. 40% of COVID patients in the county overall have been African American.
Holly Wilson is a neighborhood liaison for the NEH as well as a public health navigator. She says many small circumstances based around long-held stigmas and lack of access to information have played a big role in the proliferation of COVID-19 in the area.
“A lot of people don’t have health insurance, right? If they do have health insurance, they have this mentality of 'Oh, this is not covered’ or they come from families who never went to the doctor," she says. "… They stay at home and they stay really ill and before they get some help, they may perish.”
Michigan United public health navigator Aurora Sauceda agrees with Wilson that a lack of access to proper information regarding job protection, financial assistance, and eviction protection is leading many to ignore possible symptoms.
“They don’t want to find out if they’re positive, especially if they have a job. That’s another barrier we’re seeing and that’s another factor that’s leading to numbers rising in our Black communities,” says Sauceda.
According to Wilson and Sauceda, many workers and their families aren’t aware of the protections set in place by legislation like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
Even in cases when individuals are aware, Wilson says, it may still be difficult for them to make the decision to get tested and stop working. For many in the area who live below the poverty line, the risk of losing their job outweighs that of infecting others.
“Sometimes you can read the words, but don't understand what the words are,” Wison said. “It’s important that we reach those people because they’re going and they’re putting their families at risk because they’re thinking, ‘I need this McDonald’s job.’ The reality is, there are safeguards put in place.”
For Brownell-Holmes’ older residents, many of whom are retired, the COVID-19 pandemic has been just as difficult to navigate.
Hasselbring Senior Center’s location within Brownell-Holmes’ largest park, along with its outdoor pavilion and large indoor common area, has made it a hub for community activities like the food distribution.
Despite all the buzz in its parking lot, however, the senior center building sat empty. Fear of contracting COVID-19 paired with the heightened risk of severe health issues in seniors has meant many of Hasselbring’s regulars have been staying home.
According to Beverly Lewis, the senior center’s executive director, even these precautions have proven futile for some.
“We have lost some of our seniors that are members here to the disease,” Lewis said. “We have several who have lost family members. Some are afraid to come out even with all the precautions we’re taking and that’s understandable because ... they know it's people of color, people of age, people with preexisting conditions that are at most risk and they know they fit into those three categories.”
In Genesee County, the average age of confirmed cases is 54, while the average age of those who have passed due to the virus is 74.
“The fear is there,” Lewis said.
Despite the fear of the virus, Lewis says Brownell-Holmes has been able to do what many communities have not: stay together. While many have taken to hiding away in their homes, losing virtually all contact with the members of their communities, neighborhood residents have worked to stay safe and make sure others do the same.
The food drive is the perfect example.
"In [the southside], where I live or even the areas around where I live, most of us don’t know our neighbors other than to know their faces or what vehicle they drive," Lewis says. "We don’t know their names."
In Brownell-Holmes, however, Lewis says she’s seen more community activism than anywhere else in the city. She likens the neighborhood to a village.
“Over here, everybody knows everybody," she says. "… They’re involved in the community. … They’re active, they’re doing things in the community. In my eyes, it’s special."