The advent of COVID-19 last year caused a sharp spike in activity at Manos de Cristo’s food pantry. From January through March 2020, Manos served 300 people a month. The numbers of individuals seeking food grew steadily, and over the past three months, the number exceeded 1,200 per month!

Diane Riehs is Manos’ Director of Development. She explained: “2020 started out as a normal year, but the pandemic caused everything to shift. After spring break, children were asked to stay home and not come to class, and schools shifted to on-line learning. By April, the number of people seeking food assistance was doubling and tripling in number.”

That trend continued, she said. “People lost their jobs, they were looking for new employment, children were at home and grocery bills were going beyond many families’ normal budgets. In July, we saw 1,210 people and in October, we saw 1,427 people. Over the course of the year, the Manos Food Pantry served 2.5 times the number of people in 2020 than in 2019.”

Covenant member Lou Ann  Newman is the liaison between Manos and our mission committee. She has had a front-row seat to the new activity at Manos. “The food pantry has truly just exploded!” she said.

The pandemic also dictated that Manos could no longer rely on volunteers; the organization shifted to relying on its paid employees for the food pantry and the clothes closet. “When everything shut down for the pandemic, Manos stayed open; they never closed,” Lou Ann said. “That was impressive.”

The tremendous growth has meant tremendous needs. Manos had one employee in the food pantry and clothes closet, and only one volunteer to pick up goods from the Central Texas Food Bank — a total of about 1,000 pounds of products a week.

“Donations from churches, like Covenant, as well as 900 to 1,000 pounds of food each week from the Central Texas Food Bank have helped our food pantry rise to the challenge,” Diane said. “Covenant’s grocery purchases were a significant piece of the puzzle. The church contributes items that the Central Texas Food Bank does not provide, but that individuals and families need—things like cereal, rice and beans.”

Covenant PW and Lou Ann Step Up
Presbyterian Women (PW) works closely with Manos, and the women’s group quickly increased its efforts last March. Lou Ann said the group previously picked up donations for Manos and ran a couple fundraisers every year. Shortly after the pandemic started, PW members realized they needed new places to bring donations because the church was closed. Four PW members offered their houses to be drop-off places and to deliver the goods to Manos. Lou Ann started sending weekly emails for the PW coordinating team, every week checking with Manos to learn of the greatest needs and relaying that to the PW.

“I may get more of the donations traffic because I live the closest to the church,” Lou Ann said. “I’ve not missed a week with at least 10 bags of things to bring over to Manos. That’s been since April. PW has just been so dedicated!”

Lou Ann is relatively new to Covenant and to PW. She and her husband, Frank, moved to Austin from Sugarland a little over three years ago. She had volunteered at a food pantry supported by her church there and was looking for a similar opportunity in Austin. “That kind of volunteering speaks to me,” she said. “I know this is what I ‘m supposed to do.”

When Lou Ann found out about Manos, she inquired about helping out, learned of Manos and PW connection, and soon became the PW representative at Manos. “I was happy to meet some people that way,” she said. “When the pandemic happened and right about that time, Whitney (Bell, Mission Director)  asked if I would be the liaison between the mission committee and Manos.

Whitney has enjoyed watching Lou Ann’s involvement with Manos. “Something we ask our congregational liaisons to do with our mission partners is to be Covenant’s eyes, ears and hands with the ministry they work with. Lou Ann has shown up weekly to Manos with donations from Covenant folks. She has formed precious relationships with the staff at Manos, and she truly serves as an extension of our congregation to Manos. She is living out the call to be a love letter from God to the city of Austin. She is leading us in how she does it.”

Manos Employees: Give Them a Hand!
Many people within and close to Manos have gone above and beyond during the last year. Lou Ann singled out Manos Executive Director Julie Ballesteros, who goes to the grocery store every single day to get things that Manos doesn’t have on its food pantry shelves. A second person with a truck stepped up to collect food from the food bank each week. And the sole employee in the food pantry now has help.

“For a long time, it was just one woman – Maria Gamez – who was working in the Manos Food Pantry. Maria is the hardest working woman! She didn’t take a vacation day until around Christmas time when they finally were able to hire and train an assistant. Maria’s just awesome. She doesn’t complain. She’s so careful. I’ve been there when people come to the door. She makes them stand back. She’s just hardworking,” Lou Ann gushed.

Diane said help in the food pantry was huge. “Our food pantry assistant, Julianna, came to work on Oct. 12 with the generous gift from the Covenant Presbyterian Mission Committee. She has been an invaluable help. Maria and Julianna have been able to keep up with the increased number of people served in the food pantry.”

Manos tests its employees and during the entire duration of the pandemic, only one person has tested positive. “We were able to isolate that employee, send them home to quarantine before infecting the balance of our staff. Such a blessing and a relief to keep from worrying about working on the front lines every day,” Diane said.

Diane added that assurance continues in 2021, thanks to the Covenant Mission Committee’s year-end gift of $10,000. “That generous gift covered the 2021 COVID-19 testing for our small staff every two weeks and the cost of a new computer,” Diane reported. 

More Ways Manos Helps the Community
Anyone who’s been around Covenant very long knows that Manos offers many services to the community. In fact, Manos was founded in 1988 to provide low-cost dental services, later expanding to include the food pantry and the clothes closet; computer, citizenship and English classes; and legal help.

“As an essential service, the Manos de Cristo Dental Center remained open to care for individuals with dental pain. Our dental staff wears personal protective equipment. Examination rooms are sanitized between patients, and all staff and patients are screened with temperature checks prior to entering the Dental Center,” Diane reported. “In 2020, our Dental Center saw 82 percent of the patients they saw in 2019. People are gradually coming back to see their dentist and seeking care for their dental issues.”

Continuing to offer classes has been more challenging, but it has also been very rewarding. “Pivoting classes to on-line instruction required a total reconfiguration of procedures by our staff, our volunteers and our students,” Diane said. “Our staff benefited from an army of new nation-wide instructors. Our instructors had to learn how to teach on-line from computers to students who were on their cell phones, tablets or laptops.

“There have been many obstacles to maintaining the number of in-person classes to on-line learning. Many of our students lost their jobs, many of our students had COVID or had a family member who contracted COVID whom they had to care for, and learning on-line is not as stimulating as in-person instruction. In spite of all the challenges, they have maintained 55 percent of the number of students in 2020 as in 2019,” Diane said.

In fact, volunteer teachers literally have come from all over the world. “We have been fortunate to have volunteer teachers from Canada, Germany, Missouri, Washington State and many other counties in Texas,” Diane said. “Being on-line, your teacher can live anywhere.”

This larger pool of potential volunteers is a good thing for many reasons, but specifically because the Manos education staff of three will shrink to two people as Emily Kennedy, Manos Education Director, will be on maternity leave for several months starting in March. “We will need to rely on a few more volunteers to fill that void,” Diane said.

Volunteer at Manos
Mano has a plethora of opportunities for donating and for volunteering. Whitney explained that Manos is an ideal partner for showing our love for Austin. “Covenant’s history with Manos is long and precious,” Whitney said. “This ministry is one that is accessible for anyone to participate in as a volunteer. Manos makes it so easy for a church to participate in their work to love the city.”

Covenant will collect donations of one-pound bags of rice and beans, boxes of macaroni and cheese, and cereal on Sunday, Feb. 28, from 10 a.m. to noon. Manos continues to need these items. There are other ways to volunteer. Contact Whitney to learn more.

Who Is Manos Helping?
is a 57-year-old, single woman. She sold catalog products door to door. She was forced to quit her job because of the close interaction with her clients. She visits the food pantry every 15 days.

Philip is homeless and comes to Manos occasionally for food, a new shirt, pants and a clean mask. He has expressed his gratitude for the help.

Margie came to the food pantry last month, requesting only canned food because she lost her job and was living in her truck. This week, she came with a friend because she had to sell her truck and can only visit the Manos food pantry when she can find transportation.

Edgar is 34 years old with a 7-year-old son, Nate. Edgar worked construction before he injured his back. He has not been able to collect unemployment and does not have money to buy food. Nate misses going to the store to pick out his favorite cereal. When Manos asked him to name his favorite cereal, he was happy to. Manos has filled his cereal order to accompany the other groceries. Nate was delighted.

Sophia and Maria are a mother and daughter who live together with 11 family members. They come to Manos for groceries. Several of the young men in their family continue to work during the pandemic when they can find day labor jobs.

Dora likes to visit the food pantry because her paycheck does not go very far. Last month, she spent $200 on a new water heater and did not have enough money to buy food as a result.

Virginia lost her job because of the pandemic. She had never been to a food pantry in her life. She expressed her dislike and embarrassment for having to visit Manos now—but she came because she needed food.