SCHENECTADY — Crowds raved over the Boys & Girls Club of Schenectady when it opened last December.
But few would predict that just three months later, the gleaming new $13 million facility would serve as a centralized hub for county efforts to distribute food during a global health pandemic that has already killed more New Yorkers than the Sept. 11 attacks.
The operation came together in the past several weeks once it became evident food pantries couldn’t safely operate as a result of social-distancing guidelines.
“Three weeks feels like a lifetime from what we’ve gone through,” said Jason Lecuyer, the county’s director of special events who is leading the effort as part of Schenectady County’s COVID-19 Response Coalition.
A slick operation unfolded on Monday as workers in a makeshift call center fielded calls from the county’s (non-emergency) COVID-19 hotline.
Next door, workers crunched the numbers, which were sent downstairs to the gym, where county staffers sorted through crates of food from the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.
The team filled hundreds of canvas bags with food and other must-have items — including toilet paper, now a lucrative commodity — while tallying the results on a series of whiteboards.
As the bags were filled, county Department of Public Workers placed them onto dollies and wheeled them into waiting vans for delivery at homes across the county.
As of Monday morning, the operation had processed 2,785 deliveries of care packages.
A buzzing call center revealed a community upended by the virus.
Even healthcare workers on the front lines have asked for help, said Schenectady County Library Director Karen Bradley, who has been redeployed to run the call center.
Others need assistance with deliveries because their previous lifelines to the world are under self-quarantine themselves.
Senior citizens make up a sizable contingent.
“People have had some unique situations they’re dealing with,” Bradley said.
Workers on a three-shift schedule follow a script, asking callers their location, how many members are in their household and other salient details.
Officials said they can scale the operation as needed and also expand their list of items if demand spikes for certain items, including diapers and baby formula, for instance.
While the coronavirus pandemic has peeled back the curtain on deep pockets of disparity in the county — 87 percent of packages have been delivered to homes within the city, Lecuyer said — the crisis has also revealed a county workforce deeply dedicated to public service.
Steve Lichorat retired March 28 from the county Public Works Department.
The next day, he stepped forward to join the coalition.
Katie Soule, a county probation officer, said the work is rewarding.
“It makes us feel really good,” Soule said as she filled bags with avocados on Monday.
Nearly two-dozen local organizations are members of the coalition, including the City Mission, YWCA NorthEastern NY, Schenectady County Action Program (SCAP) and the Schenectady Foundation.
But membership doesn't reflect every organization that is doing something in the county, Schenectady Foundation Executive Director Robert Carreau said, but rather just those that are coordinating closely as a group in providing food, supplies and shelter.
The Schenectady Foundation recently reactivated their emergency disaster fund, giving it $100,000 and offering to match all donations up to $25,000.
The coalition’s scope reaches beyond food distribution, with representatives from each organization adding their expertise and stepping in to offer services wherever needed once residents call the hotline.
A county Department of Social Services staffer is stationed at the Boys & Girls Club, for instance.
Callers with questions about assessing government services or housing issues, for instance, can be transferred. Or perhaps SCAP can get involved if necessary, linking people up with crisis support services.
Groups have worked together before on numerous disaster relief efforts, from the Jay Street Fire to natural disasters.
All disasters feel chaotic at first, said Schenectady County Action Program CEO Deb Schimpf.
But eventually, everyone settles into a pattern.
“We are way ahead of the game,” Schimpf said. “It’s because of our established relationships and long-term trust.”
Carreau said the ongoing crisis feels far different from others.
“This is more complex in a way,” Carreau said. “In other situations, you can put your arms around people and give solace and comfort.”
Despite the dark times, coalition members believe their work can help buoy spirits.
“Everybody’s anxious,” said City Mission CEO and President Mike Saccocio. “No one knows when the end will be in sight. But people know there’s a massive operation designed to help them."