ST. LOUIS — On the top floor of a flat in the south side of this city, Charles Wade and his team are preparing to serve a meal for 500 people in Ferguson, Mo. this Sunday, an event that will help mark one year since the shooting of teenager Michael Brown.
Atop a table lay stacks of syrup for waffles, trays of muffins, boxes of Spanish-style rice, granola mix, and more. "We do half continental, half hot," Wade said of the selection. "It really lets someone know you care when you give them a hot meal, and that's what we wanna do."
Wade, co-founder of the St. Louis-based nonprofit Operation Help or Hush, would know. The organization was born in the ashes of the rioting and looting that hit Ferguson immediately after the death of Brown. The group has become a major player in the non-profit/activism scene that has moved into Ferguson since last year, including groups like Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Ferguson Freedom Fighters, and others.
Living in Austin, Tx. and working as a stylist at the time, Wade was shocked as he watched the events unfold on the news. He called longtime friend and Ferguson resident Tasha Burton, a co-founder of the group, to see how she was holding up. "Here's what she said: 'I'm more concerned about children and old folks who are outside in the heat who are so worked up that they're not taking care of themselves,'" he explained.
That same day, the two started raising money on Twitter to start buy water and other necessities for people in the community. Soon, their modest plan to raise $1,500 was surpassed. "And then in a few hours we had $3,000. By the morning we had 10. And by the next morning we had like 30 grand. Overnight we became this thing," Wade said. Shortly after, he moved out to St. Louis "pretty much full time" to sustain the efforts. "It was not anything either of us intended," he said. Funds continue to come in almost exclusively through Twitter.
Since those beginnings, Operation Help or Hush has grown into a certified force in the activism community across the nation. When rioting and looting hit Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Wade and his group ordered hot Dominos pizzas for neighborhood kids who would be missing out on free school lunch for the day. "Sustaining protesters and the communities they protest in is core to our mission," said Wade.
Today, the organization employs two people from Gilmor Homes (where Gray lived) who help hand out lunches to about 75 people in that community every weekday. In St. Louis, employees and volunteers have been handing lunches to impoverished children for much of the summer.
Serving hot food like pizza a marketing plan of sorts, Wade admits. A lot of groups come into a community when there's a crisis, do some quick work, and then leave without really getting to know the community. But for Help or Hush, the pizza was a way into a deeper relationship. "The first day I went back to the community, people were shocked. They were like, ‘We never thought we'd see you again," he said. "I wouldn't be able to walk around Gilmor Homes as freely as I walk around Gilmor Homes if I hadn't already established a trust from the moment I met them there. Same in St. Louis. We wouldn't be able to do what we're doing here if we didn't already establish trust in August and November," when they regularly fed community members and activists.
What they are doing isn't by any stretch a miracle, but it is much appreciated. In the impoverished North St. Louis neighborhood of Baden, employee Isaiah Qualls and two volunteers recently sat at a table in a park, offering free meals to children who haven't had access to free school lunch all summer. Signs of inner-city ills in the area are abound. A few steps from the table, a small memorial sits adorned with teddy bears in the name of a loved one. Homes and businesses in the area display the yard sign: "We Must Stop Killing Each Other."
Kids take breaks from basketball games to grab a turkey sandwich and water. A hungry pregnant woman approaches the table and asks if she can have a lunch. "Thank you," she said, when Qualls told her unborn children count.
"It really affected me when Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were killed," explains Qualls, a white Idaho native who has four black adopted siblings. He took the summer break from his studies at the University of Idaho to come and work the summer with Operation Help or Hush in St. Louis. "I knew that I had to do something about it," he said. For his time, Qualls is paid $15 an hour, since the group is part of the "Fight for $15" movement.
The group also has a wider vision for sustaining social action and spurring change. In St. Louis, the organization rented four different apartments to serve as transitional housing for like-minded people who support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. A recent spat with a landlord has put the housing project on hold, and Wade had to recently ask the tenants to leave, he said. There's a court hearing about the situation next week.
Not that the hiccup is slowing the group's ambitions. On a recent trip to a Costco in West St. Louis County, Wade and a small army of volunteers went to pick up more food in preparation for Sunday's brunch in Ferguson. In total, it took five shopping carts and industrial crates to carry out the items, ranging from fruit juices to boxes of yogurt and eggs. "Thank you Twitter," Wade joked as he took a peek at the final tab. The bill came out to a whopping $1,478.49.
Out in the parking lot, the goods were stuffed into three cars and trucks. "Do you have enough freezer space for all of that?" asks a volunteer. "We'll figure it out, we're good," Wade responds.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.