Caritas has doubled up on leadership as it battles hunger in Waco aggravated by COVID-19 and its repercussions for the hungry and jobless.

The social service agency with a major food pantry has named Alicia Jallah and Ann Owen as co-executive directors to succeed the retiring Buddy Edwards, whose 12 years at the helm will end with retirement May 29.

Jallah and Owen previously held leadership positions at Caritas, and they now will share leadership duties for an organization with a $2.1 million annual budget, and funding and food sources ranging from Walmart, H-E-B and the Central Texas Food Bank to the United Way of Waco-McLennan County.

It also has 42 paid staffers, countless volunteers and now two top executives.

Jallah joined Caritas in 2018 as an assistant executive director. She oversaw the Lamar County Food Pantry in Paris, Texas, after earning a bachelor’s degree from University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a master’s degree from Denver Seminary in Littleton, Colorado.

“We are committed in the fight against food insecurity and poverty so that those who are vulnerable among us can hold onto hope,” Jallah wrote in a Caritas press release. “My heartfelt gratitude goes to Buddy for his strength in leadership and legacy of kindness and compassion.”

Owen holds an associate’s degree in data processing with a minor in business from McLennan Community College. She also received a certificate in nonprofit management from Baylor University, according to the press release.

She joined Caritas in 2014 as development director before becoming an assistant executive director two years ago.

Owen said she wants to build on Edwards’ momentum in Caritas’ efforts to eliminate the fear and uncertainty of not knowing where that next meal is coming from: a condition 40,000 McLennan County residents experience, Edwards said in an interview, citing studies by the Texas Hunger Initiative.

“The board is excited with the talent and experience Alicia and Ann bring to the position, and we look forward to working with them,” Caritas board President Cindy Wood said.

Edwards said dealing with the coronavirus has presented Caritas and other food sources nationwide with a daunting task.

“I am so pleased the staff and community have risen to the occasion,” Edwards said. “We’ve modified our operations in response to increased demand on our pantry services and those impacted by COVID-19. A large percentage of our population is low-income. Put a pandemic on top of that, and it has been challenging to say the least, a challenge of a lifetime.”

Curbside changes

Caritas joined the curbside crowd, its designated staffers conferring with clients using a makeshift drive-thru lane and delivering canned goods, fruits, vegetables, refrigerated meats and shelf staples to their vehicles.

The arrival of COVID-19 and the ripples it has created throughout society have prompted Caritas to liberalize its enforcement techniques.

“Normally, we ask those seeking assistance to come in and complete a form self-declaring that their income is not above 185% of federal poverty income guidelines, which is our threshold,” Edwards said. “Now we practice social distancing. We get a name and other basic information, and they are asked to make a self-declaration to staff. There is no dealing with paperwork.”

Edwards said Caritas serves residents chronically needing help putting food on the table and those blindsided by a catastrophic event or illness.

COVID-19 obviously would fit in the latter category, he said.

Before coronavirus, Caritas would provide food assistance and other services to 125 client families per day on average, he said.

“We were doubling that when we first introduced drive-thru,” Edwards said.

The tally has dipped from the initial spike but remains above average.

‘Directly intervening’

Caritas’ sphere of influence is not limited to the dining room.

It introduced a case management program in 2014 “that allows directly intervening in people’s lives, examining the dynamics of why they are living in poverty and the actions they can take to move out of poverty,” Edwards said. “This includes access to vocational training programs and finding jobs.”

More recently Caritas has brought onboard a dietitian and started a “healthy pantry initiative” that teaches clients the value of good nutrition, he said. Caritas also assists residents struggling to pay rent or utility bills, tapping resources available through United Way’s community response fund.

Two thrift stores operate as Caritas Hidden Treasures, at 3016 Bellmead Drive and at 3912 Bosque Blvd. Both have reopened after shutdowns to comply with Waco and McLennan County directives aimed at reducing crowds and public exposure to the coronavirus, Edwards said.

Serving as executive director of Caritas has been a blessing, and he would welcome opportunities to volunteer in the future, he said.

For now, he and his wife, Paulette Edwards, will retire together next week. She has been employed at Baylor University 46 years.

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