Xavier Hernandez showed no hesitation as he sat down, rolled up his sleeve and, in a matter of seconds, received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
For Hernandez, a 27-year-old with a degree in biology, getting vaccinated makes pragmatic sense. He’s one of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s truck drivers, distributing food throughout the city and suburbs to community partners serving a heightened number of people in need of food assistance. If he’s safer, so too will be the people receiving the food.
His decision was also deeply personal. Earlier in the pandemic, Hernandez lost two family members, both in their 50s, to the deadly virus.
“After having two family members lost, it was just really important to me,” he said. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to get vaccinated.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, nearly 200 members of the Food Depository team received their first dose of the vaccine. It was a watershed moment for the workforce, which was deemed eligible for phase 1B of the vaccination rollout because of its essential work in feeding people during the ongoing crisis.
For many, it was also an emotional day after nearly a full year of working through the pandemic. During that time, loved ones have died. Babies have been born. Many of the workers have worked long hours in the warehouse and on the roads. Others, meanwhile, have struggled with the isolating feeling of working from home. None has gone unaffected.
As people trickled in for their appointments, there was an almost palpable feeling of shared gratitude and hope. In the larger picture of community health, the vaccinations are critically important to the Food Depository’s daily work in feeding thousands of families facing hunger during the pandemic.
“I will sleep better tonight than I have in a long time,” said Kate Maehr, the Food Depository’s executive director and CEO. “We’re doing this to help our community.”
Nearly a year into the pandemic, the Food Depository is still distributing roughly twice the amount of food out of its facility on the Southwest Side as it did before the pandemic. The need for assistance is soaring, particularly among families with children. Lower-income communities of color have been hit the hardest.
Luis Reyes, who picks orders for partners in the Food Depository’s warehouse, called the decision to get vaccinated “very, very personal.”
Despite taking precautions, Reyes’s household in the West Lawn community went through its own COVID-19 outbreak in September. While he and two of his brothers tested negative, his parents and two of his other brothers contracted the virus.
On Reyes’ 25th birthday, his dad was hospitalized. Since the rest of family had to quarantine, they couldn’t be by his side.
“Just leaving him on his own for three days in the hospital, that was really bad,” Reyes recalled. His dad has since recovered.
Other Food Depository employees have experienced a different form of hardship during the pandemic.
Before coming to work for the Food Depository in October, NaLoni Scott was among the millions of Americans who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. She had been laid off from a luxury retailer. Her experience of being unemployed for about six months gave her a new perspective.
“It drastically changed my view of myself as a person and what is important,” said Scott, who is an associate manager of partner services for the Food Depository. “I’ve gotten out there more and volunteered for other food pantries and I have a more holistic view of things.
Cecilia Cap, a compliance supervisor for the Food Depository, was pregnant with her first child when the pandemic hit. Her daughter, Ada, turns 9 months old this month. The isolation from a broader family support system has been difficult.
“We always thought that having our first child would be different, that we would be surrounded by family and that’s just not the case,” said Cap, 38. “Her world is just me and her dad and whoever we talk to on video chat.”
The eventual reunion with family members near and far is a powerful motivation for many getting vaccinated. Dalia Almanza, a public benefits outreach supervisor, noted the how Latino communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Widespread vaccination will eventually restore a feeling of normalidad, she said.
“I want to travel but with one purpose – to see my abuelita in Mexico,” said Almanza, 34. “She’s my last living grandmother and I want to see her and hug her.”
For June Williams, who has worked at the Food Depository for nearly 25 years, the vaccine represented hope for an eventual return to normalcy at the workplace, too. As operations supervisor, Williams oversees volunteer projects in the warehouse.
Williams enjoys interacting with the volunteers; he hopes to see their smiles again someday.
“When the opportunity came (to get vaccinated), it gave me hope,” said Williams, 50.
As the leader of the Food Depository, Maehr has had to make countless difficult decisions in leading the food bank through the singular challenges of operating in a pandemic.
Like everyone else, though, she’s also experienced her own personal difficulties. Her mother, who lives in a Michigan nursing home, has Alzheimer’s disease. Her condition has worsened during the pandemic, as the heightened restrictions have limited contact with others.
Maehr longs to visit her mother in person after they’re both fully vaccinated.
“Whether it’s someone standing in line at a food pantry or it’s one of your colleagues at work, we’re all carrying the weight of this,” said Maehr, 53. “Anyone of us, in any given moment on any given day, might need some kindness extended to us.”
After a year of unimaginable loss, the vaccine provides some measure of hope. The Food Depository is now working with the local health departments to coordinate vaccinations for its community partners, who are also considered eligible for phase 1B of the vaccination rollout.
“The reason to do it is not about yourself,” Maehr said. “It’s not about me. It’s about my community. We need to think about all the people in our community who are vulnerable.”