May 15, 2020

New Seymour program serves food, ‘hope and strength’

Peyton Levine, left, Michelle Neibert-Levine, and Andrew and Matt Levine, members of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour, pose on April 23 beside a food truck donated by the archdiocesan Catholic Charities Disaster Response office to help feed the growing number of hungry families and individuals through Waymaker Ministries’ “Feed Seymour” effort. Neibert-Levine is principal of St. Ambrose School. (Submitted photo)

Peyton Levine, left, Michelle Neibert-Levine, and Andrew and Matt Levine, members of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour, pose on April 23 beside a food truck donated by the archdiocesan Catholic Charities Disaster Response office to help feed the growing number of hungry families and individuals through Waymaker Ministries’ “Feed Seymour” effort. Neibert-Levine is principal of St. Ambrose School. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: Below is the second article in a series looking at how parishes and organizations with Catholic ties are meeting the increased need for food since the outbreak of the coronavirus and its impact on the economy. See the first installment here. The final installment next week will focus on Martin’s Cloak ministry in the Tell City Deanery.)

By Natalie Hoefer

Look at a map of Indiana. Trace one finger down two counties from Indianapolis, and trace the other finger up two counties from the Ohio River. Your fingers will meet at Jackson County, the geographical center of the archdiocese.

With the primary source of jobs in the county found in manufacturing and retail, Deacon John Cord of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour—Jackson County’s largest city—calls it a “working-class” area where many people “live paycheck to paycheck, on the edge of poverty.”

(Related: Feeding central and southern Indiana)

So in mid-March when Gov. Eric Holcomb ordered all but essential businesses to shutter their doors in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Jackson County and Seymour were hit hard.

Deacon Cord can vouch for the impact on the community. Through his efforts with the interfaith non-profit Waymaker Ministries’ “Feed Seymour” project, he has witnessed food distribution sites that “normally have 30 to 50 [people] turn out go to 75, then 100, then 150.”

To meet the increased need, he brought in the people of St. Ambrose and members of the local Knights of Columbus to assist Waymaker Ministries in their food distribution efforts.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of middle-class people,” says Deacon Cord. “I’ve heard middle-class people say, ‘I never thought I’d be in a situation to stand in line and ask for a free meal.’ Now they’re coming every day.”

‘Stepped up right away to help’

As a board member of Waymaker Ministries, Deacon Cord has had his finger on the pulse of those in need of food and shelter in Jackson County for some time.

The organization was founded by Karen Browning three years ago. Until recently, the effort consisted of volunteers driving meals to designated sites throughout Jackson County.

“It’s not just food, but also toiletries and medicines like aspirin, and checking in to see how they’re doing,” Deacon Cord explains.

In mid-March, he says, the volunteers began to see more new faces.

That trend follows the county’s explosion of initial unemployment claims since mid-March, a statistic that had been low for years.

According to, the number of new weekly unemployment claims in Jackson County broke the 100 mark only five times since January of 2010. In fact, the last time it happened was in August of 2012, with a figure of 106.

The week before Gov. Holcomb’s order in mid-March, less than 10 initial unemployment claims were filed in the county. The same figure from March 21-April 18 totals nearly 4,600.

While Waymaker Ministries still serves those in need around the county, its “Feed Seymour” project focuses on that city, making a concerted effort to provide meals on the city’s east side every evening.

“We requested local churches and other organizations to help in an effort to have meals seven days a week on the east side of Seymour,” says Decon Cord, noting that a separate organization is doing the same on the city’s west side.

St. Ambrose agreed to provide food on Thursday evenings. The local Knights of Columbus is preparing and serving food on Saturday evenings, as well as picking up prepared meals from participating organizations each day and delivering them to the distribution site.

“St. Ambrose and the Knights of Columbus just stepped up right away,” says a grateful Deacon Cord.

‘The youngest was probably 4’

The phrase “it takes a village” comes to mind when considering the logistics of the effort.

Thursday evenings alone, the night covered by

St. Ambrose, involves the parish school’s kitchen and head cook; four to five volunteers to package and serve the meals; a truck and trailer donated temporarily by the archdiocese’s Catholic Charities Disaster Response office, coordinated by Jane Crady, Deacon Cord’s sister; and a Knights of Columbus member to drive the truck and trailer.

And then there are the health and safety concerns.

“First, the preparation of the food has to be done in a [state-]certified kitchen,” Deacon Cord explains.

“Next, the volunteers have to wear masks and gloves. We try to find families to volunteer together so we don’t have to worry about social distancing for them.”

At the serving site—the parking lot of Waymaker Ministries’ nearly-completed homeless shelter—volunteers do not come in close contact with those picking up meals. From behind a table, they ask an individual the number of meals needed. The meals are put in a bag and placed on the table, with the volunteer stepping back as the person takes the bag.

“Then a volunteer wipes down the table and the process starts all over again,” says Deacon Cord.

The first evening of “Feeding Seymour,” April 23, happened to be a Thursday. St. Ambrose School principal Michelle Neibert-Levine, her husband Matt and their two teenagers volunteered.

“We were instructed not to ask other questions [outside of meals needed] for a couple of reasons,” she explains. “First, they didn’t want people to feel they had to provide information in order to get food—it’s advertised as ‘no questions asked.’

“And second, there were other trained volunteers from local social services inquiring if individuals had other needs, like for shelter, at this difficult time.”

That first evening, Neibert-Levine saw “individuals of all ages. The youngest was probably 4—with her parents—and the oldest around 55, with an equal mix of women and men.”

‘Finding hope and strength’

Neibert-Levine and her family served 105 meals that first evening. But Deacon Cord says the numbers rose the next week.

“We told churches to plan for 150 [meals], and we thought we were exaggerating,” he says. “That Monday we served 178 meals. We ran out of food and had to buy pizza to feed the others. The next night we served 188 and had to buy McDonald’s.”

As of May 11, the site is serving an average of 160 meals per evening, with the most totaling 212. Churches are now preparing 175 meals on weekdays, and 125 meals on Saturdays and Sundays.

“If we run out of meals, then we buy pizza,” Deacon Cord notes. “We’re also keeping sack lunches with non-perishable items on the trailer for children.”

The need has become “a lot bigger than we thought,” says Deacon Cord. “People living in homes but with no cash for food is a new group we’re seeing. And we’re seeing a group we were hoping we wouldn’t see—young, middle-class families.”

He has also seen an increase in Latinos and women married to undocumented immigrants, “so they’re not eligible for food stamps or denied for unemployment benefits,” he says.

Currently, “Feeding Seymour” is scheduled through June 24.

Reflecting on her volunteer experience, Neibert-Levine recalls an impactful moment.

“As we were packing the trailer to leave, a director of one of the other ministries told us that they had conversations with two separate individuals that had considered suicide and were finding hope and strength from these services,” she says.

Helping those in need is a critical component of living a Catholic life, says Neibert-Levine.

“One of my favorite Scripture passages is Luke 12:48: ‘To whom much has been given, much is expected,’ ” she says. She and her family “are very blessed, and it feels good when we are able to share our gifts with others.

“On our drive home, we reflected on how good it felt to help, but knew the need would continue to grow before the situation got any better.”

(For those in Jackson County who need help or want to volunteer for or donate to Waymaker Ministrie’s efforts to feed the growing number of those in need, e-mail Deacon John Cord at or call him at 812-718-8259. He is also willing to speak with other organizations wishing to offer or receive advice on feeding the hungry during this time of increased need.) †

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