Chapala Sunrise Rotary Emergency Food Relief Program
By Nicci Beniger
Rotary members packing despensas at Bravo Theatre.
With the onset of COVID-19, it soon became evident that many residents of Lakeside were unable to work and, therefore, unable to provide food for their families.
Many organizations set about trying to alleviate this problem, and Chapala Sunrise Rotary was one of them. On April 20, we began with 48 despensas going mainly to the towns along the lake east of Chapala. We were funded at that point by $150,000 pesos from club funds and donations from Canada. We began contacting other supporters north of the border and within a week we had commitments of $500,000 pesos from seven Rotary Clubs, 17 club members, and 30 other individuals.
We now needed to decide who to serve, how to expand, and how to recruit other volunteers to help us. There was the logistics of food purchase, storage, and delivery. What should we put in each despensa? How could we create a safe environment for volunteers who were packing the despensas and those who were delivering them?
Each week we purchased and repackaged 65 pounds each of rice, beans, oats, sugar, and cereal, as well as cartons of powdered milk, tomato paste, cooking oil, soap, and fresh vegetables. A big thank-you goes to Bravo Theater which allowed us to store our goods and use their spacious facility to package our despensas in a safe way.
We distributed despensas weekly to needy families in Chapala and nearby villages. However, it was clear that an enormous need for food was growing. Thankfully, so were our donations. We now had $762,000 pesos! However, we did not have the manpower or storage space to expand our own capacity. So we began to look for local partners who were engaged, or wanted to be engaged, in emergency food relief. With that in mind, we partnered with several organizations, including:
Tepehua Centro Comunitario – to provide maternal health and nutrition, adding extra vegetables and fruits to the diets of expectant mothers.
Love in Action and Hope House – to orphanages that had lost some funding and required help to meet the needs of their children.
Mescalo Centro de Adicciones – Lakeside Presbyterian Church had the manpower to deliver the food so we provided the funds to feed this center.
Poco a Poco – funds to add food to their deliveries lakeside.
There were also several small groups that were discovered as we expanded. Our program wrapped up at the end of September, when we have provided just over five months of food relief. We estimate that the funds we raised distributed 380 despensas a week, feeding about 1,900 people weekly. Our club contributed about 1,500 hours of volunteer time during that period.
Our efforts could not have been successful without the leadership of Alan and Becca Pohl who drove to Guadalajara weekly to purchase the goods as cheaply as possible and then did the bulk of our distribution to the villages. They worked with individual villagers to assess needs and make sure that food was reaching the most needy. When they found more families, we increased our despensas. Their tireless efforts and skills led to the enormous success of this program. We faced many challenges during this time, not the least of which was receiving money from north of the border and efficiently transferring it through the Mexican banking system. But in the end everything was received.
How do we evaluate our successes? We built new relationships and strengthened old ones with many groups and individuals in the community. We built trust with many local villages. We made a massive difference to hundreds of people during an intense time of need. As Rotarians would say, we built goodwill and better friendships.
Becca Pohl distributing despensas in the villages east of Chapala