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Unity & Survival Program: ‘It’s very much about the community members taking care of each other, rather than just providing a service’

Ingrid Leon was greeted with appreciative familiarity as she made her rounds delivering food, neighbors already very used to seeing her once a week for nearly 10 weeks.
Volunteers unload a truck full of food to be delivered to the Norris Square Community in Kensington on June 9, 2020.

“Nilda, Nilda, Nilda…”

That was the tune of the morning on June 9 outside what used to be St. Boniface Elementary School, also called St. Bonnies, in the Norris Square neighborhood. 

Nilda Perez (right) directs a volunteer who is about to make deliveries of fresh food and produce on behalf of the Unity & Survival Program, a collaboration between the Norris Square Community Action Network and the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

The volunteers, who were gathered on the 2000 block of Mascher Street, sought Nilda Perez’s direction while they prepared a shipment of fresh food to be delivered to the community.

Eventually, her name became a part of the cadence of the block as everyone quickly fell into a rhythm unloading the U-Haul full of food along with the co-chair of the Norris Square Community Action Network (NSCan), Nilda Perez.

Boxes of fresh food and produce are unloaded from a Share food program truck in the Norris Square section of Kensington.

Outside of St. Bonnies — now a local community center owned by the Norris Square Community Alliance (NSCA) that allows other local groups, like NSCan, to use for their operations — the meals are being distributed by the Unity & Survival Program that began in the wake of Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order starting on March 23. Members of  NSCan worried for their neighbors, especially the elderly.

Margarita Hernandez opens a box of food meant to be distributed by volunteers to residents of Norris Square along with two other Philadelphia zip codes.

Starting in late April, following Philadelphia’s stay-at-home order to curb the spread of COVID-19, the program began to distribute boxes of fresh groceries, produce, and dry goods, every Tuesday. The group has given out upwards of 100,000 pounds of food, according to Steve Powers, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who partnered with NSCan to form the program and help connect neighbors with resources.

READ MORE: This Norris Square volunteer program has delivered nearly 100,000 bags of groceries

“It’s very much about the community members taking care of each other, rather than just providing a service,” said Mackenzie Stocum, a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation, who also volunteers at the group’s facility in Kensington, the Philadelphia Liberation Center.

Margarita Hernandez has been a Norris Square resident for over 54 years, she is the block captain of 2000 Howard Street. Block captains are responsible for coordinating meals from the Unity & Survival program for their block.

Many of the volunteers present that day like Margarita Hernandez live within blocks of St Bonnies.

“I’ve been here all my life. I went to school at Bonnies, so it’s my community,” said Hernandez, who has been a Norris Square resident for over 54 years. A familiar face in the community, Hernandez has been volunteering with NSCan since it started and is also the 2000 Howard Street block captain. 

Block captains like Hernandez coordinate deliveries with NSCan, and they are responsible for communicating any of their neighbors’ specific needs, whether they are families with children, the elderly, or people with chronic health conditions.

Volunteers of the Unity & Survival program meet each Tuesday to stack boxes of fresh produce and dry goods. The food is shipped to them by their supply partners, such as The Common Market and the Share food program, and then distributed to the blocks surrounding Norris Square Park.
Volunteers prepare boxes of food for shipment at 2014 N Mascher St. The location now used by the Norris Square Community Alliance and other community organizations used to be St. Boniface School.

Soon after arriving, the truck stood empty. Many of the boxes were already in the back of volunteers’ cars on their way to neighbors while others sat on wooden pallets on the sidewalk and waited for the next wave of deliveries.

Aury Bermudez (left) and Ingrid Leon (right) coordinate deliveries for the Unity & Survival Program. Both volunteers are longtime Norris Square residents.

After Ingrid Leon carried a few boxes over to families on the next block, she came back to deliver the rest of her deliveries by car, a list of addresses in hand. 

Ingrid Leon drives deliveries of food in the Norris Square section of Kensington. She is thankful to be working from home because she can use her lunch break to deliver food to her neighbors.

Leon is also a longtime resident of Norris Square, she said that she is thankful to be working from home because she can use her lunch breaks to deliver food to her neighbors.

“I live in this neighborhood and I still get lost,” said Leon, a longtime resident of the Norris Square Community. “I have no sense of direction.”

“This actually brings me so much joy to do this,” Leon said. Residents met Leon at the door like an old friend due to weeks of Leon delivering boxes of food to their doors once a week.  

Ingrid Leon was greeted with appreciative familiarity as she made her rounds delivering food, neighbors already very used to seeing her once a week for nearly 10 weeks.
Leon makes a delivery to 74-year-old Diana Almer, who has lived in Norris Square her whole life, considered moving temporarily to the Jersey shore to live with family. But after getting deliveries from the program, she said she no longer felt a need to leave Kensington.
Aida Laudiano stands in the door of her home on June 9, 2020 after receiving a food delivery from the Unity & Survival Program. The program is run through a partnership between the Norris Square Community Action Network and the Philadelphia Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Fostering community empowerment is a core goal of the Unity & Survival Program, according to Perez, who remained at St. Bonnies — drop-off  list in-hand — to ensure that each box of food found its way to the right place.

The Norris Square Community Alliance and other community organizations use what used to be St. Boniface school at 2014 N. Mascher Street as a dispatch center.

Perez said that sharing resources is important, but the organizers also want community members to ask themselves why there is a need for community-led food distributions. Increasing people’s understanding of inequities in the social systems that directly affect them is a key goal of this initiative, she added.

Ingrid Leon stands outside what used to be St. Boniface school, the space is now used by the Norris Square Community Alliance as a central space. The initial shipments of food are brought to this address prior to distribution.

She mentioned the recent surge of action and media coverage after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer as a catalyst for these conversations, and that issues like food scarcity and police brutality are not one dimensional — but are systemic.

Co-chair of the Norris Square Community Action Network Nilda Perez mentioned the recent surge of action and media coverage after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis as a catalyst for conversations about systemic issues like food scarcity and police brutality.
Nilda Perez worked at St. Bonnie’s on June 9, 2020 to direct volunteers making food deliveries on behalf of the Unity & Survival program.

“Everything has come to light as a result of that,” she said. “The opposition, — the powers that be — have been made to keep you distracted, with one issue, in one neighborhood.”

Members of the Norris Square Community Alliance and the Party for Socialism and Liberation work on behalf of the Unity & Survival Program to distribute food to the Norris Square Community in Kensington. The program is a collaboration between the two organizations.

“We also have to teach people how to go after the ones that put them in that situation,” Perez said. “While you rescue people from the water, and they’re drowning you also have to go after the ones that threw them in the water. Right?”

Robert Perez, a volunteer with the Unity & Survival Program, stands inside St. Bonnies after stacking boxes of food meant to be distributed in the community.

Editors: Zari Tarazona, Henry Savage / Designer: Henry Savage / Translator: N/A

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