Never underestimate the power of your vision.
More than 10 years ago, Jenny Waltman and her husband, Jason, saw integral needs in their Avondale neighborhood and wanted to help. That desire led the couple to found Grace Klein Community, a Birmingham-area nonprofit that last year donated more than $2.1 million in groceries to 25,000 households.
Before the pandemic, Grace Klein Community served as a monthly food delivery to the doors of families without transportation. Now, the group helps families with reduced incomes to offset food costs, after their wallets are emptied by mortgages, car payments and utility bills. During the past year, the nonprofit has seen more people struggling because of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Food insecurity is when you’re afraid of running out of food, and you don’t know necessarily know where you’ll find your next meal,” said Waltman, chairman and CEO of Grace Klein Community. “No one should have to be afraid of having enough food to feed their children or themselves. Food insecurity can affect anybody – even your next-door neighbor who has a 9-to-5 job – and it causes a lot of stress and anxiety.
“We operate from eight different locations because of space restraints and to keep our staff safe,” she said. “If one location is exposed to COVID-19, we’ll not all be exposed, which protects us from closing. Our drive-through services are too important to risk losing two weeks of food support to the community.” With three full-time employees and 11 part-time workers, the nonprofit relies on hundreds of volunteers to help fulfill its mission.
Volunteers prepare food boxes from Grace Klein Community for distribution by Liberty Church in Birmingham, Concord Church in Calera and Royal Divinity Ministries Industries Inc. in Wylam. The group also provides food to 70 community partners in outlying areas.
“We can’t operate without our volunteers,” Waltham said. “Volunteers own every part of the process. GKC is a community of friends helping friends, and we’re all in. Everyone is welcome, and each person contributes their best gifts and abilities, which proves we are better together.”
Because of COVID-19, Grace Klein Community began a drive-through system to allow people to pick up food. Volunteers wear masks, keep a 6-feet distance and place the food box in the recipient’s back seat or trunk. Families served by Grace Klein Community are never charged for food, though volunteers keep a record of families served, by zip code and family size.
When the group was created, the nonprofit distributed 50 food boxes a month. That total has mushroomed to 200 or more food boxes a day. In the meantime, Grace Klein Community has grown with the community’s ever-increasing needs.
“We’re feeding about 10,000 people a week and require 200 volunteers a week to make this possible,” Waltman said. “We’ve grown five times since the start of the pandemic.”
Around April 2020, a Southeastern food service provider loaned Grace Klein Community an unused refrigerated trailer. However, as the grocery business improved during the pandemic, the company needed its equipment.
“We really appreciated their help,” Waltman said. “Later, generous donors helped us buy a refrigerated box truck where we store food. We have refrigerators and freezers at our office and drive-through locations. We receive food every day, and Monday through Saturday, we give food away at one of our locations. We’re on a fast turn-around.”
Jack’s Family Restaurants gave a walk-in refrigerator the nonprofit uses at its drive-through at Royal Divinity Ministries. Safe food storage remains a primary focus as community needs increase.
Grace Klein Community partners with several grocery stores, restaurants and the United Way’s Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. Every day, about 100 volunteers pick up food from several Publix stores, the Heavenly Donut Co., Magic City Harvest, Panera, Penzeys Spices, Regional Produce, Southern Organics, Trader Joe’s, Winn Dixie and other donors.
While these partnerships put viable food in the cupboards of needy families, Grace Klein Community helps decrease CO2 emissions by keeping good food out of landfills.
The Alabama Power Foundation recently awarded the nonprofit a grant toward the purchase of refrigeration equipment.
“We are so thankful for the Alabama Power Foundation’s generous gift,” Waltman said. “We hope to increase by 25 food-rescue partners in 2021. It’s difficult as we work to keep everyone safe and increase the capacity. This grant, along with additional fundraising, will help us secure another refrigerated box truck and a 20-foot Connex trailer to safely store 10 more pallets of food.” Their most urgent need is a larger facility, warehouse and loading docks to improve efficiency and serve more food-insecure families.
“About 90 percent of people who volunteer with us have received food from Grace Klein at some point,” Waltman said. “Our goal is not only to provide healthy food for your family, but to help people stabilize their lives, get control of debt, maintain housing and thrive at their jobs.”
‘#LoveDoes’ project honors Birmingham heroes
In time for Valentine’s Day – and throughout February – Grace Klein Community volunteers are celebrating more than 1,000 Birmingham first responders, teachers and other essential workers by providing flowers, encouraging notes and gifts through “#LoveDoes.”
“This idea grew from our day-to-day #feedbirmingham efforts to uplift someone’s day,” Waltman said. “Partnering with Beacon People, this initiative seeks to engage volunteers with meaningful ways to thank our community heroes, encourage the weary and, hopefully, in some small way, combat the mental health struggles that attack our front-line workers who work long hours and consistently serve our community.”
As part of #LoveDoes, volunteers this week are delivering handmade cards and posters, healthy snacks, flowers, baked goods and specialty gifts to more than 1,600 schoolteachers and staff. More than 200 employees at Spain Park High School received flowers. Employees at Alabaster, Bessemer and Hoover fire departments, police departments, and essential hospital workers and employees of medical facilities, including the American Red Cross, were honored last week.
Volunteers will keep the Valentine’s Day spirit flowing by encouraging postal and civil service employees. Waltman suggested placing a small gift in your mailbox to brighten a U.S. Postal worker’s day. The final week, volunteers will honor nursing home staff and residents.
“If you only have a dollar to your name, you can give a smile, you can write a note,” she said. “#Love Does” is a cool initiative, a way to love in action and truth. It’s important to honor those who came before us, who prepared the foundation that we build on.”
Grace Klein Community grew from a prayer
Every day, grateful recipients leave Facebook comments about their gratitude to Grace Klein Community. Waltman is amazed when she considers the “winding road” that birthed the nonprofit.
Early in their marriage, Waltman and her husband started Grace Klein Construction Inc. At that time, Jenny Waltman, who graduated from Samford University in 1998, was a busy mother who also served as bookkeeper for their family’s business. Around 2009, the couple bought and renovated a historic home in Birmingham’s Forest Park area, intending to “flip” the house.
“One night I was praying, and God was showing me our furniture in the house in Forest Park,” Waltman said. “I didn’t want to live there.”
The house was beautiful, in a nice neighborhood, but she had other ideas for her family’s future. But Jenny told Jason about her vision. The next day, he went to the Forest Park house, where he prayed about what to do. When Jason returned, he told Jenny that he also felt that God was telling him that they were meant to live in the house.
“We moved in,” Jenny Waltman said, with a laugh. “Our daughter was zoned for Avondale Elementary School. We fell in love with the people and the community.”
After she started school, their daughter was invited to a classmate’s birthday party. When Jenny Waltman walked into the little home, she saw only mattresses on the floor. There was no other furniture.
“What is this child’s reality?” she asked herself. Waltman realized the family had probably used their monthly food stamp allotment to feed their guests. Waltman’s following thoughts were even more sobering: “I knew the families in the neighborhood needed food support and we were doing nothing about it,” she said. “I thought about James 4:17 in the Bible: if you know to do good, and you don’t do it, it is sin.”
Seeing this need, Waltman and her husband wanted to help Birmingham’s people. She talked with four friends about how to confront hunger in the community.
“We started by visiting 50 inner city schools and asking for their support,” she said. “We talked with administrators about families they knew who needed food, and volunteers started delivering food to those families once a month. Suddenly, our family was living in every socioeconomic class, and every person we knew had a need, whether it was physical, emotional, financial, relational or spiritual. We are all broken people, and we all need a place to belong.”
More than a decade later, Grace Klein Community – which means “little gift from God” – is true to its name.
“It’s so beautiful to see the unity – our team is so dynamic and passionate about what we do,” Waltman said. “We’re grateful for all the businesses that partner with us, and for the grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, which is an investment in us. Together, we’ll feed Birmingham.”
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)