By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Westborough – When their annual service trip got cancelled this summer due to COVID-19, four local advocates refused to resign to a season of stagnant quarantine.
Instead, Ben Riela, Greg Xenos, Abbey Riela and Ella Hillfinger all approached their contacts at the national Appalachia Service Project (ASP) hoping to bring their charity work home with a special food drive for the Westborough Food Pantry, Saturday, June 27.
“There’s a ton of need just in our own backyard,” Riela said. “We kept seeing the need at food banks so we thought, we have this huge network at ASP…what if we used that power to do something here in town.”
ASP is an organization dedicated to bringing high school and college volunteers to economically struggling rural areas of the country like West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
In a normal year, ASP participants raise money for months before then traveling south to spend a week making common repairs to homes which owners could not otherwise afford.
“When you have all these problems, repairing a leak in our house, repairing the rotting floor or the uninsulated walls, that’s low on your to do list,” Riela said of the life situations of the homeowners he’s served in the past.
He noted that, over five years of trips he’s made, each family he’s worked with has been particularly hit by the effects of substance use disorder which has ravaged rural Appalachia for years.
As much as Riela and others say they look forward to their trip, however, Riela said he quickly understood, once the true scope of COVID-19 pandemic became clear, that he would be staying home this year.
“When I got sent home from college, I could kind of tell the trip was going to get cancelled,” he said. “The world was going to change for the foreseeable future.”
And things did change.
COVID-19 put thousands out of work in Massachusetts alone, exacerbating already oppressive situations for those struggling with poverty and food insecurity.
As COVID-19 forced some food pantries to cut back service, and as quarantine severed some food supply lines, locals risked going hungry. That triggered pleas for help from the pantries still operational.
“They’ve always needed help,” Riela said of Westborough’s pantry in particular. “The need has just been elevated with this downturn.”
At work over the months since ASP cancelled their trip, food drive organizers say they plan to host monthly drives throughout the summer. The first such event will, indeed, take place June 27.
Organizers like Riela ask interested donors to sign up for the event through a Google form or via email. On June 27, volunteers will circle through Westborough, picking up food items that donors should leave at the end of their driveways.
Altogether, Riela says he’s grateful to have found a way to still give back this summer all while also getting an inside look at the nuts and bolts of the charity world he’s participated in for most of his adolescence.
“It slowly became something that requires much more work than we thought,” he said. “…there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.”
To register to participate in the June 27th food drive, fill out the following Google form https://forms.gle/Gy5tsF3qz5AoDad2A. Anyone with further questions should reach out to food drive organizers by email via email@example.com.