By Stacie Scherman
Four hundred miles away from Flint, Daren Jaime, pastor of the People’s AME Zion Church of Syracuse, New York, recently “had a vision in the middle of the night” about helping Flint residents cope with the water crisis.
The next morning he reached out not just to his congregation but to the superintendent of the Syracuse City School District, who agreed to make every school in the district a drop-off site for water donations.
The campaign caught on in a big way in the city of 144,000. Soon the Syracuse mayor and county executive made all city buildings available for drop offs.
Jaime also invited help from another New York city and others of his acquaintance. He invited Buffalo City Council president and True Bethel Baptist Church pastor, Darius G. Pridgen, to join the water campaign. Pridgen responded by launching “Operation H2O,” a city-wide water donation drive led by True Bethel.
One donor included the Buffalo company ROAR Logistics, which volunteered to arrange the water delivery to Flint and to cover all of the transportation costs.
The result was an initial delivery of 4,500 cases of water, with plans for ongoing deliveries and storage in a Flint warehouse and established collaborations with several Flint-area churches.
People’s AME and True Bethel originally planned to work with the Red Cross to distribute the water. However, Jaime explained that as his church began to promote the initiative, he heard from sister churches in Flint, including Joy Tabernacle and Blackwell AME Zion, that many Flint residents were “running into challenges” with the Red Cross water distribution.
Jaime said he heard similar reports from former Flint residents in his congregation who were in contact with family members still living in Flint. “We had boots on the ground to find out what some of the challenges were,” Jaime said.
According to Jaime, reported challenges included alleged ID requirements to receive water as well as rationed water distribution, leaving many residents looking elsewhere to fill their water needs. Jaime was also told that certain areas of Flint had only been visited by the state and federal distribution agencies once.
Residents in those areas who are unable to travel to water pickup sites, like the elderly and those without a vehicle, have been relying on outside help to receive bottled water.
Questions about the Red Cross response in Flint are being directed to a Michigan.gov website. According to a Michigan.gov press release from Jan. 22, identification is not required at any of the five official state water distribution locations to receive free bottled water, filters, water replacement cartridges and water testing kits. Members of the National Guard are instructed to ask residents for their home addresses but according to the press release do not deny water resources if residents do not provide their addresses.
Because of reports and concerns about the Red Cross, however, Jaime and his partners in Syracuse and Buffalo decided to work with their sister churches in Flint to distribute their water donations directly to the community. Jaime explains that they wanted to “fill the gaps left by the Red Cross” and to deliver water “to people who may be underserved and have tremendous need. We felt it best to get the water to the people.”
Twenty-four volunteers from Syracuse and Buffalo made their first trip to Flint at the end of January with 1,500 cases of water. Jaime explained that when they returned to Syracuse, he went to the local news and radio stations “to show the devastation people were going through on a personal basis,” which motivated more people to donate water.
Over the following three weeks, People’s AME and True Bethel collected enough water to make a second trip with 3,000 cases, twice as many as the first trip. The two churches, along with 35 volunteers, traveled back to Flint at the end of February.
Water distribution began on a Thursday afternoon. Volunteers from New York were led by the pastor and some church members of Joy Tabernacle to homes that Jaime said did not have access to other means of water distribution.
Distribution continued that Saturday morning at the North Flint Plaza at the corner of Pierson Road and Martin Luther King Avenue. Several Penske trucks full of water, dozens of volunteers from New York and Flint, and hundreds of cases of water filled the parking lot. Volunteers with “free water” signs stood at the side of the road waving vehicles into the lot. The cases of water were stacked in a long row, and drivers were directed to line up on either side. Volunteers loaded, on average, two cases of water in each vehicle.
The water convoy then moved to Rosewood Manor, a low-income housing complex about a quarter of a mile north of Pierson Road off of Martin Luther King Avenue. Volunteers continued loading water into vehicles and also delivered water door-to-door. Jaime said residents of Rosewood included “women and kids and families.” One elderly resident with a cane was greeted by volunteers with water and hugs.
People’s AME is also planning to rent enough space in a Flint warehouse to store up to forty-five pallets of water. Jaime explained that it is difficult for churches to receive and store large donations of water because of space limitations. “Where do you put twenty pallets if someone wants to donate and bless you with 20 pallets of water?”
The stored water would then serve as a back-up supply if donations of water do not meet demand. “There will be a time at some point in the future that the water will stop trickling in,” Jaime said. “At least they will have something to fall back on.”
Jaime said that People’s AME will replenish the supply as it is used. “People will move onto the next cause,” Jaime said. “At least you have a place that you can go, and you haven’t distributed all the water out.”
The pastor at Blackwell AME said his church is covering the cost of the warehouse and will oversee the storage and distribution of water from Flint.
Full disclosure: Staff writer Stacie Scherman also works for Flint Distributing Company, the warehousing company in Flint where the water is being delivered and stored.