Transcript Strengthening Partnerships, Creating Joy with Melanie McGuire and Ada Saenz

Episode 5 Transcript: Strengthening Partnerships, Creating Joy
with Melanie McGuire and Ada Saenz


Ami McReynolds: Summer of 1979, I’m on my way into fourth grade. But during the summer I had an opportunity to attend a summer recreation program. Summer recreation consisted of playing games, doing some learning, practicing some routines for the big citywide event that would happen at the end of the summer. But one of the most important things I remember about the summer recreation programs is that I knew I could always get breakfast and lunch. I was grateful to be able to have meals provided and have a good time with my friends. Little did I know that my parents, who were both teachers who didn’t work in the summer, were also grateful.

Welcome to Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. I’m Ami McReynolds, your host and the chief equity and programs officer at Feeding America. Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger is a series of conversations with everyday leaders who are disrupting the systems of inequity that drive food insecurity across this country. 

For years, the San Antonio Food Bank and the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio have partnered to meet the needs of children and their families. When the pandemic hit, however, they realized that their work together was even more critical and needed to evolve. Almost overnight, the need in the community doubled, and the inequities that were already there and present deepened. The pandemic exacerbated the already difficult choices that so many working families make on a regular basis. 

In an effort to ease some of those challenges, the food bank and the Boys and Girl Clubs worked together. They strengthened their existing partnership by listening to and working with their community to provide the support needed during this very difficult time. In the midst of it all, they found that they were providing more than food or even a safe space. They were also creating joy.

Today we’re joined by Ada Saenz, the interim CEO at the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio, and Melanie McGuire, chief program officer at the San Antonio Food Bank. Ada and Melanie, thank you so much for joining me today. 

I am very excited to dive into this discussion based on our earlier conversation. And the first thing I’d love to do is just learn more about the communities that you serve. What are some of their unique strengths and some of the challenges that the community is dealing with?

Ada Saenz: Sure. The Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio, we are strategically located in areas where children need us most. We serve children ages 6 to 18, and we are typically in areas where there’s high poverty and high crime, and really areas that are deserts, of sorts, of resources for youth. But in the same vein, they’re also areas that are very rich in culture and pride for that culture, where there’s a very high focus and emphasis on family and their immediate community and neighborhood. And the children that we serve are just so resilient and bright, and they’re just full of potential and hope for their future.

Melanie McGuire: What Ada has described is really kind of the thread of San Antonio. Two-thirds of San Antonio identify as Hispanic or Latinx. And in many of these families, there’s a real sense of community, so it’s very common to see a mother and maybe an abuelo or a tío that live in the home with many of these families. San Antonio has a really rich cultural diversity to its communities. We have a pretty young population of communities of color. And so many of those communities have real connections to organizations and schools and services. We’ve got a very high rate of food insecurity here in Texas, but even a higher rate of child food insecurity. So 24% of children here in San Antonio are food insecure. So it’s really imperative to have organizations like the Boys and Girls Club that offer a lot of these resources to families, particularly in a very high time of need.

Ami McReynolds: Absolutely. You know, I love that you both talked about the richness of culture, the strength of family and extended family in many cases, in the strength of community and the pride and that being just really unique assets in the San Antonio area. I know you also mentioned many of the communities that you serve are high poverty, high crime, high need, right. They are deserts of resources, I think is how you described it, Ada. And it sounds like most of the children that you’re working with and the families that you’re working with are from black and brown households. What do you think drives some of the challenges that these families are dealing with? Some of the economic challenges, the racial disparities that you’re seeing in your community. I’m curious, what do you see happening?

Ada Saenz: So the Boys and Girls Clubs, we see a lot of generational poverty. So these are families who, for several generations, they’re still living in those same neighborhoods. Sometimes even the same houses. They’re living in the same home that their grandparents built many, many years ago. And so we see a lot of families and children who just really need support in terms of understanding that there’s more out there than just the neighborhoods that they’re used to. And then also understanding that there’s lots of opportunities to grow out of those communities. And then also, ways that they can give back once they are older and successful. How do we be a change agent ourselves for our own communities moving forward?

Melanie McGuire: Yeah. And I think we have many households that are led by women. So a single mother is the kind of matriarch of the household. And they’re working families. And so it’s very difficult oftentimes for these families who are working sometimes more than one job to make ends meet, to afford the increased cost of living that we’re seeing here in San Antonio. So a lot of the time that child will come home and there won’t be a parent in their home. A lot of these families, if they’re able to graduate high school, that’s a success. But oftentimes there’s very large language barriers. So, the importance of education and having that support system to provide those children with resources for educational attainment is so critical. Because we know that if that doesn’t occur — about one in 25 San Antonio youth that are between the ages of like 16 and 25, they’re disconnected. They’re not in school and they’re not working. And so that foundation that organizations can provide when children are in those formative years, while many of these parents are working service industry jobs and often not coming home till later in the evening.

Ami McReynolds: Yeah, I appreciate you both just pointing out so many of the systems inequity there are at play here, especially contributing to generations of poverty in communities. Education system, unable to have a job — a decent job, quality and salary — and having to work multiple jobs in order to try to make ends meet. So it makes sense to me that your two organizations, the food bank and the Boys and Girls Clubs would come together. I’d love to hear a bit more about your partnership, and how did it come to be? And more importantly, how has it evolved over the years?

Ada Saenz: So the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio has relied on the amazing work of the food bank for many, many years. We have partnered both in San Antonio but also across the nation for a really long time. It’s because of the food bank that we are able to provide nutritious meals to the kids that we serve every single day. So not only are we talking about lunch or supper and a snack during our summer programming, during our after-school programming, but also this past year because of the pandemic, we were open for the very first time for full-day virtual learning support programming all year round for the school. So, they were also able to provide us meals for that. It’s been a longstanding partnership, but definitely in the wake of the pandemic it has grown a lot stronger.

Melanie McGuire: And I just want to commend Ada because it’s a great testament to an organization that has kind of a yes culture, an organization that understands their mission to be able to provide those resources, those critical resources to families, and ultimately that safe haven for children, but understands that we have to think collectively and collaboratively together. And so, if a meal allows a kid to come and stay after school and get assistance with homework, or allows a family to be able to drop off a child while they work, then, we love being part of those kinds of conversations and ways to think creatively and out of the box. 

We’re so fortunate to have the Boys and Girls Clubs really embedded in communities. And that’s always the most beneficial way that families can get connected to services, when it’s right where they live, right where they work. And so having those community-based organizations that are providing that assistance — and then how do we provide those wraparound services? Because behind a hungry child is a hungry family. And so the Boys and Girls Clubs not only are taking care of that child as part of their mission, but also understanding that that family also needs support and going the extra mile to make sure that they have those critical resources for families.

Ami McReynolds: Thank you, Melanie. Thank you, Ada. You know, I think about what you all have learned over the course of the years of your partnership and working together, but like many organizations, many people for that matter, many folks are sort of thinking about, what does return to normal really mean? And what have we learned over the course of this pandemic thus far that has given us some new insight and new ways of doing things where we’re creating a new normal for ourselves? I’m curious to hear from the both of you: What have you learned over the course of this past year, year and a half during the pandemic that really is shaping your work now and even as you look ahead to the future of your work together?

Melanie McGuire: I think as a food bank and kind of communication with partners like the Boys and Girls Clubs, a lot of the hurdles and challenges our community’s facing are really no different than the challenges we all face when we have something like COVID in our communities. It’s parents having to think about getting to work — because many of our families don’t have the luxury of paid time off. They’re service industry individuals and so they’re juggling how to get to work and also how to care for their children. And for organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs that have stepped up and have been open and receptive to take care of community and really support families, I think that’s been so beneficial. And for us, if we can infuse multiple services so that families aren’t having to choose between dropping off their kids and getting groceries. How do we make that choice, the simplest choice? And then what resources can we do to help support these organizations in that success and allow them to continue the amazing programming that they’re doing.

We’ve learned that we have to be flexible. The traditional family’s work day doesn’t end at 5:00 p.m., and so the Boys and Girls Club opens late so that kids can stay there for a longer period of time so that families can work. And so having those services at times that are convenient for families is so critical to our work. And I think that is something that we realize that we’re going to have to continue to challenge ourselves to find ways that we can meet the needs of families that are having to kind of compete with so many different responsibilities that they’re faced with now. And we want to make sure that accessing food is not a barrier. And the most important way to do that is to ensure that it’s right in their neighborhood.

Ada Saenz: Yeah. Melanie brings up a really good point. This year has been the year of the pivot, right? For so many entities because of the pandemic. And so when we first closed our doors, when it first hit our area, which was right after spring break of last year, we called all of our families and we asked them, how are you doing, what do you need? How can the Boys and Girls Clubs help? And, there was a lot of fear, and sadly that fear continued and continues today. But the overwhelming message that we received was that they needed basic necessities and food was at the top of that list. And so at that time, we turned to our strong partnership with the food bank, and they were really leading this effort in San Antonio to make sure that people in our community were not going to go hungry during this pandemic.

And we hosted large distribution sites at our clubhouses where families could do a drive-by and receive nutritious food options that they could make meals for their family at home. But then also we had ready-to-eat meals that the food bank provided so that, you know, kids and their families had a nutritious meal ready for them — a warm meal that they could eat.

So it’s been very eye opening to see the reality of the needs, like the true needs of the people in our community. Food insecurity is a real thing. We see kids who come to our clubhouse; they arrive hungry. And when you ask them when was the last time you ate, they hadn’t eaten since they’d been at our club the day before. So, just the reality of the need of San Antonio and so many people in Texas and in our nation, it’s very apparent through this pandemic, and the need for organizations to — regardless of what your mission is — if you’re a nonprofit and you’re in human services, you need to be able to adapt accordingly to the needs of the people that you serve based on what’s going on in your world at the time.

Ami McReynolds: So if I could just follow that thread for a minute, Ada. I’m thinking about, you said at the start of the pandemic, and probably as the pandemic has continued, you’re asking your families what they need and for these sort of immediate needs. But I’m curious, what are your families saying about what they need to improve their lives longer term? What do they say, what do they share with you in terms of their needs, or their hopes? What do they wish for?

Ada Saenz: Well, we have so many families who want the very best for their kids. They want them to have bright futures, but there are so many obstacles stacked against them in just their day-to-day reality. And so they are really looking to organizations to provide that support, right. It takes a village to raise children. And so when Melanie talks about single-parent households, households where it’s just the mother raising children by herself, or it’s grandma and grandpa trying to do their very best to raise their grandchildren. They really need that support so that they can know that their children are in a safe place so that they can provide the, go to work and have the monetary means to provide for their family. And they just need resources to help their children thrive — thrive in school and see the opportunities that are out there for their kids to have a better life.

Ami McReynolds: Melanie, what are you thinking? I know the food bank has been engaging in this work and partnerships work, but what are you hearing from the community?

Melanie McGuire: Yeah. I mean, you know, this pandemic is unlike any disaster we’ve ever faced here, it’s kind of been drawn out. And so it’s touched, what we hear is it’s touched so much of people’s lives in ways that they really never expected. And it changed, what felt like overnight, right? And so the fear, the anxiety as parents who now are navigating a virtual environment for schooling, who are making the tough decision about whether they can leave their child at home and go to work, and have them essentially assist raising their younger siblings. The fear that kids were feeling about what this pandemic means and the lack of social connectedness they could have with their peers. It’s taken quite a bit from families, and you can see that in their faces.

I mean, you can see the pain and the anxiety that families face. And I think organizations that were able to continue to open their doors, amidst their own fears and amidst their own concerns about themselves and their families, were able to provide, particularly for children, that emotional support that I believe has really long-term impacts as we kind of weather through this post-pandemic environment. Kids that were able to see other kids, kids that felt supported in what seems like an impossible educational environment, if you’ve never navigated Zoom and every other technology that kids had to face in a very short amount of time. So I think for those that we can connect to services, it’s just a little bit of relief to know that there is something out there because man, so many organizations unfortunately had to close their doors quite abruptly.

And so families that once relied on services and had that kind of social support system were now finding that maybe some of those programs or services were not being offered. So those that were able to step up, I commend them because it really is critical for families because we know that many of these families were food insecure before the pandemic even started. And so the concern was, as those organizations were not there, not having to kind of fall further behind, and really that uphill battle is pretty steep once that occurs.

Ada Saenz: Well, Melanie brings up a really good point about the emotional support that’s needed through this pandemic. Kids, for the first time, they were isolated. They were trying to do, trying to be a student on a laptop, staring at a screen all day. And that’s not what kids should be doing. They should be engaged in hands-on learning; learning should be exciting. And so doing virtual learning for many kids was really difficult. And so when the school year ended, we wanted to have three priorities in our summer program. First and foremost, we want the kids to just be kids again. To come to our clubhouse and have fun and be engaged and have hands-on activities where they can play with their friends. Because isolation was a real thing for many kids this year. 

The second area that we wanted to focus on was emotional support. So social-emotional learning activities that we could provide in the classroom during their regular day here — being able to identify what they were feeling and talk through what they’re feeling and going through when they were home alone. And then also providing academic support. We know that kids were, there was a lot of learning loss that occurred this year because of virtual learning. And so we wanted to provide academic-enrichment programming for our kids to kind of help them navigate that learning loss so that they can be ready for this next school year.

Ami McReynolds: I’m curious, as you both talk about the sense of relief, this idea of it taking a village to raise children — lord knows, I am grateful for everyone who had a hand in the village that raised me. And you talk about kids being kids and emotional support and academic support. This is work that goes deep. And there are times when we are having conversations with supporters or funders of our work who want to know how many, right — like more, more quantity. But what I’m hearing you both describe is work that actually goes deep. So I’m curious, how are you all navigating this quantity versus, I’ll call it quality, conversation with supporters, with donors, with others who are interested in engaging and supporting in your work? 

Ada Saenz: So for the first time, so before the pandemic, you know, this whole idea of quantity versus quality, you know, of course we want to serve as many kids as possible. We don’t want to leave any child behind. So we want to serve as many as possible, but we’re also in the business of impacting lives. And there’s a balance there. And so this idea of quality versus quantity goes well before the pandemic. But, through this pandemic, it’s kind of been a learning opportunity, because we were forced, human services was forced to ensure that they were maintaining distance between bodies. And so for the first time, we were forced to serve less kids in very small groups so that we can ensure safety and reduce the possibility of transmission of COVID.

And so even though that was really difficult to not be able to serve as many kids as we wanted to, it was actually really eye opening to say, oh, wait a minute. We don’t have 35 kids that one staff member needs to be there for; they have a group of six or a group of 10 or 12. And so the level and the dosage of support goes a much, much further way when you have a smaller group of kids. Because every individual’s needs are unique to that individual. And so in order to provide the best services, the best resources to each individual, it takes time to build those relationships and to have those conversations and to be able to connect them to the resources that will truly benefit them.

And so it’s been really eye opening for us. We have started having those conversations with donors and it’s, I think it’s been an aha moment for a lot of donors who provide funding, because they’re in that same mentality of, well, we want our dollars to go as far as it possibly can. We want it to touch as many kids as possible. But there’s this really eye-opening moment where you realize, like, it serves children well to be able to have that smaller group of kids, and so quality is just as, or even more important, than quantity.

Ami McReynolds: That’s right. That’s right. Melanie, what about you all at the San Antonio Food Bank? How are you thinking about this question?

Melanie McGuire: Yeah, it’s a great question. As I think about our for-profit organizations and they talk about customer service and the importance of customer service and I think within our work, we’ve always had that idea that we wanted to ensure that families received services that are attuned to what their needs are, and that involves really active listening. And I think we’ve done a good job of doing more of that now, and really listening to organizations and their needs. And on top of that, I think as we talk and learn more about the social determinants of health, we understand that that connection between food and those services is so critical. And it’s forcing organizations and the food bank to work much more closely together to say, what is it that you’re looking to achieve and how can the resources that we have here at the food bank help your organization do just that?

And so for organizations that serve children, it’s things like a warm meal, right? It’s healthy, nutritious food that ensures that kids stay well and are active and lead healthy lives. For other organizations that might be different, but it’s that discipline of taking a step back and really listening to others. And certainly I think for donors, it’s the intentionality of carving out that time. I think the idea to have those conversations, to bring organizations together and communities together is something we want to do, but the pressures around deadlines and outcomes is really put on all organizations that, you know, this one thing that you’re going to do is going to produce this outcome. Well, really at the end of the day, it’s the relationships and the community that produces that. And so we have to do a better job of telling that story. We have to be able to listen to one another because no one organization is going to carry that torch. We have to do it together.

Ami McReynolds: Yes. And I’ve heard you all describe this very synergistic partnership that you have in terms of the Boys and Girls Clubs leaning on the food bank as a partner to provide nutritious food and nutritious meals to children and families, and how that has given the Boys and Girls Clubs a little more flexibility in your budget to create a safe space, ensuring you’ve got money to pay for staff, or to fix something in your space that may not be quite right that’s important for children to be able to access. So that synergy of partnership has been clear when we’ve talked in the past and definitely I’m hearing you talk more about that today. 

I’m wondering, as we begin to wrap up our conversation, you’ve talked about families in your community wanting great lives for their children, to ensure that there is a village, that children can be kids again, that there is resilience in the community that families are able to come together and continue to build this rich diversity of culture that’s in your community.

As you think about maybe 10 years from now, if you were to close your eyes and imagine that it’s 2031, what do you see happening differently in your community? What has the pandemic taught us? What have we learned from this pandemic that you’re seeing happen within the community, seeing change?

Ada Saenz: I’ve seen our community step up to the plate through this pandemic. I’ve seen so many individuals and corporations and nonprofits and government entities come together and really unite to lift up those who are most in need during this pandemic. And it’s been really amazing to be a part of and to see. And so my hope is that that continues — that we continue to build those strong partnerships and to build upon those strong partnerships to really create a lasting and true change in our city. So, when I close my eyes, I see less fear and anxiety, and I see more joy and happiness. I hear children laughing and being kids and thriving in school, knowing that the possibilities for their future are endless. 

Ami McReynolds: Beautiful. Thank you, Ada. 

Melanie McGuire: Yeah, I think Ada put it really eloquently. As we embark on a new fiscal year at the food bank, we’ve had these conversations, right, about what does that future look like? And we all came to a consensus that we didn’t want to return to normal because normal meant that black and brown communities have high rates of food insecurity and that we still have a lot of work to do to be able to reach those that may not be able to reach our services currently. And so, because there’s all these other barriers beyond just accessing that food, there’s transportation and housing and education. And so we want to create a new journey for us. And we want to do it together with our organizations, with our community, with our city, with our government officials.

And we’re embarking on a new direction, which is what we’re calling Secure San Antonio, and replace San Antonio with any other city across the country. And just as Ada mentioned, it’s an environment that we don’t have that fear and anxiety and that we’re working collectively with all these other drivers that are so critical to help us move forward — educational attainment and job training, affordable housing and housing security for individuals, health care and the importance of having that when you’re sick, so we don’t see things like we’ve seen in this pandemic for many families. All of these things coupled with so much more are so critical to kind of painting that new picture. And ultimately, it will take all of us kind of working together.

And I think if anything, that this pandemic has shown us, is that we have that ability to do so when times are tough. When grocery stores lack those basic needs communities inherently, and I would say particularly San Antonio, has a remarkable way of working together. And we’re going to need to do a lot more of that if we want to see those changes in our community — and particularly in communities where we have a lot of work ahead of us. And so I’m encouraged, I’m excited about what that future could look like in those 10 years. And I am so grateful for organizations and volunteers who, at the midst of a global pandemic, have stepped up and helped us in that, in that path forward.

Ami McReynolds: Well, I have to tell you, Melanie, I am very hopeful that with the work that you’re doing at the San Antonio Food Bank, the work that Ada is doing with the Boys and Girls Clubs of San Antonio, that Secure San Antonio becomes a mantra just beyond the four walls of the food bank, that it really becomes a rallying cry to bring people, to continue to bring people together. To step up — as you said, Ada — in the community and come together for those who are most in need. I am very encouraged by what you all have shared with me by the work that you’re doing, the community you’re creating, the joy that you’re creating in San Antonio. And I just want to thank you both, Ada and Melanie, for joining me today in this conversation. I appreciate you both. 

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Elevating Voices, Ending Hunger. If you enjoyed our conversation today with Melanie and Ada, and want to get involved in the work Feeding America is doing to address equity and food insecurity, visit FeedingAmerica.org/act. Don’t forget to share this show with others and be sure to subscribe so that you can get new episodes as soon as they are available. I’m Ami McReynolds and I look forward to continuing our equity journey together in our next episode.
 

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