May 20, 2020
By the end of May, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis will have freely distributed $1 million in food, necessities and safety supplies since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region.
“When you look at the need, it’s so incredibly overwhelming,” said Michael P. McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. “And 75% of these families tell us they have never, ever been in a food line in their entire life.”
Along with a host of partners and sponsors, the Urban League is serving the community in a weekly series of drive-through outreach events. Cars line up hours before the events are scheduled to begin. Police are needed to direct traffic as cars come from every direction. “Their process would rival any high-performance assembly plant,” as Kenya Vaughn reported here.
At the first event at the Urban League site in Jennings on April 2, staff and volunteers served 1,075 families. At the most recent event at the site of the former Jamestown Mall on May 16, 3,300 families were served.
“It’s a sight to behold,” said St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who volunteered at Jamestown Mall.
To date, the Urban League has distributed nearly $800,000 worth of food, toiletries, and personal protective equipment to over 17,000 families in St. Louis, St. Louis County, East St. Louis and Alton, Illinois. They will serve another 3,000 families this Saturday, May 23 starting at noon at the North Side Community Empowerment Center, 1330 Aubert Ave.
“We continue to receive requests every day from the community throughout the entire region for all items,” McMillan said.
They will continue to serve the community through large-scale distribution events every week until August, when these efforts will culminate with what would have been its Urban Expo touch event. With social-distancing protocols in place, this will instead be a network of drive-through events in the city, county and East St. Louis. In addition to the usual supplies, the Urban League will give away bookbags, school supplies, information and resources for students going back to school – whatever that means this fall.
McMillan’s vast personal and professional networks and his reservoir of credibility and good will have been essential to growing this movement, week by week.
“Prior to my being sworn in as county prosecutor, as a councilman in Ferguson and just a member of our community, I have always found the Urban League to be a great community partner to work with,” Bell said. “Anything I have ever needed – and I know this is true of other officials and leaders – the Urban League and Mike McMillan were always there to help in any way. This is just another example of leadership.”
Community members who know their public officials must have balked, at times, to see who was putting groceries and sanitizers into their trunk. St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page and state Senator Jamilah Nasheed also have served with the Urban League on the front lines.
“I have great respect for what the Urban League has done and is doing and wanted to be a part of the progress that the Urban League promotes. It’s amazing to see so many people working for the betterment of the disenfranchised,” Nasheed said.
“Mike McMillan has such great charisma and really cares about people and truly understands the plight of the most vulnerable. There is nothing I would not do to support or serve Mike McMillan in whatever position he might be in.”
Nasheed is more accustomed to serving the Urban League by fighting for state funding for its programs. In the last two years, she secures a total of $1 million in state funds for its Save Our Sons program that McMillan founded during the height of the Ferguson unrest.
“That money was well worth it,” Nasheed said. “We are transforming lives.”
McMillan himself looks forward to the day when the Urban League can return to its proactive mission of transforming lives and not spend so much time and resources on providing food, toiletries, emergency financial assistance, diapers, baby formula – as he said, “basic survival needs.”
Bell could feel that, helping to provide for those basic survival needs at Jamestown Mall, a hangout of his youth.
“It was heartwarming, but it was bittersweet,” Bell said. “It was wonderful to see people come together. On the bitter side, it’s hard to see so many people in need. But I was happy to work with people to help meet that need.”
McMillan foresees just as many people with needs to meet in the future, though those needs will evolve beyond bare subsistence.
“I am incredibly concerned about the future of our economy,” McMillan said. “As people go back to work, they will need job training for other industries. And what will our social safety net look like? How long will this last? How long will it take to get us back to where we used to be?”
As more basic needs are met, new problems will emerge.
“After the economy starts to stabilize, our focus can return to empowerment and helping people get jobs so they can take care of themselves, open their own business, be independent,” McMillan said. “That is the real goal of this agency – economic independence – not keeping people in the constant state of being a client of the Urban League.”