- Sasha Goldstein ©️ Seven Days
- At Curbside Connected last month
Shortly after the coronavirus hit in March, Vermont began releasing nonviolent inmates from prison in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease in the crowded facilities. That meant that many of Joanne Nelson's clients were back on the streets, often without adequate supplies, food or even housing. Nelson is director of the justice and mentoring programs at Mercy Connections, which helps women who are or have been incarcerated.
With food shelves and other social service organizations overwhelmed by the economic impact of the pandemic, Nelson and the volunteers at the Burlington nonprofit came up with a way to meet their clients' basic needs. Every Wednesday, they open the front window of the organization's offices on South Champlain Street and run a free pop-up bodega.
There's food, hand sanitizer, masks, deodorant, toothbrushes, even prepaid cellphones and fresh flowers and art kits. Most importantly, Nelson said, there's conversation and, yes, connections.
"When they come, they feel more human; they feel engaged," Nelson said. "They might initially feel embarrassed, but maybe not. And when they get the food, we know it's helping their nutrition and they can make their budgets last. And then we're finding out about people living in cars, which is nothing new, but it's a higher number during COVID."
Nelson launched Curbside Connected on July 1 and served about 25 people that day. While it's intended for those who use Mercy's services, which include educational programs and entrepreneurship training, Nelson said the organization won't turn anyone away. About 67 incarcerated or formerly incarcerated women are in the mentorship program.
Word has spread, and the event now serves about 40 people each week. But the offerings have increased, too. Nelson said the organization is expecting to secure about $49,000 in federal CARES Act dollars that it can use for the bodega and a weekly food-share program for about a dozen former inmates.
"So many of our participants ... are saying, 'I was afraid to leave my apartment. I came out, and now I feel so much better,'" Nelson said. "The isolation-buster component of these programs is really important."