Mariah Pratt Bonkowski, founder of nonprofit Parts of Peace, continues to provide hygiene products to those who can't afford them during the COVID-19 pandemic
Food pantries can help stretch a struggling family’s budget, but it’s not always easy to get that help. Pantries may have very limited hours or be tough to access without a car.
So last year, Mariah Pratt Bonkowski and her Baltimore nonprofit, Parts of Peace, began offering “micro pantries” in highly accessible locations. The Greenmount West Community Center was home to the first “PoP pantry,” a brightly painted wooden cupboard about four feet tall and filled with pancake mix, instant mashed potatoes, breakfast cereal and other non-perishables. Other PoP pantries contained body wash, laundry pods and toothpaste.
But the coronavirus pandemic has left most community centers closed, so the pantries aren’t accessible these days. And more people are struggling to afford the basics. Now Parts of Peace is adapting to the times.
A team of volunteers is packing brown paper bags with hygiene items and cleaning supplies for Baltimore residents who can’t make ends meet. People can pick up their orders at the Parts of Peace office in northwest Baltimore or have them delivered. The group is prioritizing items that can help prevent the virus from spreading — like hand soap and laundry detergent.
While officials are urging Americans to frequently wash hands and disinfect household surfaces, “sticking to these recommendations is very, very difficult" if you can’t afford essential household supplies, says Parts of Peace board member and volunteer Sheena Williams, a lawyer.
Grant funds from the Warnock Foundation, as well as individual donations, are being used to purchase the items.
The response has been overwhelming. The group received about 160 requests within 40 hours of posting an online request form and had to take down the form. About 170 people were on a wait list last week.
With consumers rushing to buy products in recent weeks, it’s been tough to find certain supplies for the effort. Williams was excited when she found 88-cent hand soap at Giant and $1 body wash at Walgreens.
Parts of Peace works to promote family stability and financial empowerment by increasing access to support services. Its name comes from the idea that even services or programs that help “just a little” can promote peace, Bonkowski explains.
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The 28-year-old has a particular interest in “gap families,” who earn too much for government aid such as food stamps or cash assistance, but still struggle to meet basic needs.
“They don’t really qualify for anything, but they’re still subject to all these social and economic challenges,” said Bonkowski, who last year received a community fellowship from the Open Society Institute to place more pantries throughout the Park Heights neighborhood.
Virtually overnight, she says, "the number of people that fall into that category jumped exponentially” as unemployment rates have soared.
With the hygiene bag initiative, those who receive the products can chip in a small donation. Recently, a woman sent Bonkowski $3 in the mail. These contributions will go toward purchasing essential items for others.
“They are literally paying it forward to the next group of people,” she says.
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