Despite pandemic, wheels still rolling at MIFA

By , Special to the Daily Memphian Updated: July 30, 2020 10:17 AM CT | Published: July 28, 2020 4:00 AM CT

With its staff, volunteers — most of whom are seniors — and clients all at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, MIFA knew it had to change the way it operates significantly to continue its mission of uniting the Memphis community through service.

Since the pandemic began in March, Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) has had to make daily decisions and changes to continue providing meals through its Meals on Wheels program and other vital services.

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The organization developed three key objectives: continue to serve seniors in a safe manner, limit contact with volunteers and deliver extra food to those seniors.

“I think what we’re finding is that even in difficulty, there are some silver linings, and we’re finding some ways we can do things better and ways we can serve more,” said Sally Heinz, president and CEO.

MIFA reduced its delivery schedule from five days per week to three. It currently makes deliveries Mondays-Wednesdays, but provides extra frozen or shelf-stable meals for the days it is not delivering.

It also had to reevaluate its volunteer base, since many people were adhering to safer-at-home guidelines and were no longer comfortable donating their time.

“The City of Memphis stepped up,” Heinz said. “The Memphis Library System supplied our volunteers, and they started helping us out.”

Since March, MIFA has delivered 32,795 hot meals; 29,398 shelf-stable meals (that can be safely stored at room temperature) and 55,258 frozen meals to thousands of clients in their homes. At its congregate sites, it has provided 39,745 shelf-stable meals and 18,820 frozen meals to clients through new contactless delivery methods.

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Arthur Martin has been volunteering with MIFA since retiring from the Air Force several years ago. Throughout that time, he has built relationships with those on his delivery routes and said his visits are more important now than ever before.

“You can go without a lot of different things, but food is not one of them,” Martin said. “We have good conversation for a minute or two. I bring them meals, but I uplift their spirits, also.”

While he is wearing a mask and practicing other social-distancing protocols, his clients welcome his visits. At times, he may be the only person his clients see in a day.

In addition to changes to Meals on Wheels, MIFA has been taking all family services applications online rather than in-person. Since March, it has received 3,341 applications for emergency financial assistance with 80% of the requests citing COVID-19 as the reason for applying.

“The pandemic has really revealed the unmet need in our community and the inequity in our community,” Heinz said. “The pandemic has certainly exposed even bigger cracks in our system. It’s even more important for MIFA to do what we’re supposed to do and serve the people who we need to serve.”

Heinz knew she needed to assemble the strongest team possible to ensure needs were being met. She brought back Anna Kathryn Word, who had served as corporate development officer at MIFA from 2007-2011, as chief development officer.

“When I left, I was crying when I submitted my resignation, but I knew I needed more experience and to gain more skills,” Word said. “It’s like coming home to me. It was very easy to imagine coming back to MIFA.”

Word said donors have stepped up and responded to MIFA’s needs, realizing the important services it provides. The pandemic “brought it all to the surface.”

“It was very clear that families needed help, and they needed help immediately,” Word said. “I think having such a long-standing, successful history in Memphis and a committed and supportive donor base put us in a good spot.”

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Donations go a long way with MIFA. A $15 donation can provide a week of meals for one senior, and $250 could cover a week of paid shelter for a homeless family awaiting permanent housing

While donors have been loyal and supportive, Word said the need is still there, noting that as the moratoriums on utility cutoffs and evictions expire, more families will require MIFA’s services.

Word and the MIFA team are working to engage the community and donors in ways that are conducive to the current environment. It will host its first virtual event on Oct. 7, featuring Matthew Desmond, author of “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

“We’re really working to continue this conversation of homelessness, which has become more and more critical now,” Word said. “We want to build a community conversation around these issues and try to engage our supporters and engage the community around these issues.”

Participants can register for the virtual event here.

“I think the opportunity to engage with our donors in new ways is exciting,” Heinz said. “We remain very hopeful at MIFA for the future.”


MIFA Sally Heinz Anna Kathryn Word coronavirus
Christin Yates

Christin Yates

Christin Yates is a native Memphian who has worked in PR and copywriting since 2007. She earned her B.S. in public relations and M.S. in mass communications from Murray State University.


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