The Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank has been in its Old Town Avondale location for nearly three decades. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the facility is getting a much-needed renovation to house the larger group of volunteers and clientele.
“We’re super thankful the building is owned by Maricopa County, and we’ve been super blessed to be able to be in this facility. However, we’ve just outgrown the space, and we’ve known that for a while. But we’re a little landlocked, and so we’ve been looking for ways to expand,” said Leanne Leonard, AFFCB’s executive director.
While Leonard knew the building needed renovations, she said COVID-19 was the true test that exposed their small building to complications.
“Last year, obviously when COVID hit, we realized that there was no way in our lobby with the size that it was to be able to socially distance. And so, when some COVID funds became available, we reached out and I wrote a grant, and we were able to get some grant money for extending our lobby so that we could have enough space to be able to safely socially distance our clients but still be able to serve them inside the building,” she said.
Despite the pandemic, the food and clothing bank only shut down for about four weeks. To continue to serve the public, the building is closed to the public, but the services are provided in a drive-thru service, from 8 a.m. to noon Mondays to Fridays.
“So much of the community is so dependent upon the services that we offer. We don’t want to leave them without a way to get access to food and nutrition,” she said.
While the drive-thru served as a great alternative when the weather was cooler, the triple-digit temperatures made it much more difficult for volunteers.
After receiving funding, the organization decided to begin construction in January. That was postponed until May 31, due to the pandemic. The completion date has yet to be determined.
As construction continues inside the building, the showers and the clothing bank have been closed to the public, but the food services remain open.
One of the main reasons for the initial closures was due to the ability to socially distance. With the renovations, Leonard said everyone will receive the same quality services while being safe.
“Ultimately, we really believe that the benefit to the community of the improvements that we’re making and the expansion that we’re making will be long term and beneficial to the community,” she said.
“We just hope that our clients are able to see that the work that we did was really for them for long term continuation to be able to serve them in a nice space that is bigger and able to better serve them in a way that keeps them safe.”
At the AFFCB, the community can come in for various services, including the emergency food box program, daily lunch sacks, senior food boxes and baby care program. There’s a mobile pantry twice a month at Barbara Robey Elementary School.
As for the clothing bank, when it’s running to full capacity, it allows for clients to check in and shop for clothing and hygiene products for the family.
Of all the services, shower access is missed by the community, Leonard said.
“We provide them with a towel and a washcloth to borrow and a small hygiene kit that has shampoo, conditioner, lotion and soap in it, and that’s for them to keep. They get 15 minutes in the shower and then they move on. We’re able to serve a pretty good number of clients. I definitely feel like that is the thing that I’m getting the most comments from the community about, as far as they’re really missing that service,” she said.
As the executive director for five years, Leonard said none of the programs would be possible without the help of the dedicated volunteers, especially those who have continued to help during the pandemic.
“I cannot say enough about the amazing volunteers of the Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank. We are so lucky. They are so committed to the mission here and to serving our community,” Leonard said.
“They have just gone above and beyond hiding under pop-up tents and umbrellas and lathering on the sunscreen and wrapping those cooling towels around their necks to make sure that the people that we serve have access to the nutrition and the hydration that they need during this time.”
Leonard said her position comes with many challenges but the reward of helping a community she cares for makes it all worth it.
One of the toughest challenges was at the start of the pandemic, when the AFFCB saw a major increase of people needing their help.
“At that beginning timeframe when COVID first hit in 2020, out of the blue we’re seeing double our client numbers from what we had been seeing just a month prior, and at the same time, we lost about 75% of our volunteer staff because that was pre-vaccine. That was when anybody who’s in the at-risk population needs to stay home and stay safe, which of course we wanted, but we still needed to have people to serve,” she said.
In a time when so many West Valley residents need access to food and other resources, Leonard said this is the right time for the renovation.
“It is always our goal to work ourselves out of a job. We want to make sure that everybody’s fed and everybody’s clothed, but we know that the needs will continue to grow, and we want to make sure that we’re here to serve them,” she said.