BKW buses are delivering food and more to those in need on the Hill

The Enterprise — Noah Zweifel

The Berne Public Library is accepting donations of food and other resources that can be picked up by or delivered to residents in need during the coronavirus pandemic.

HILLTOWNS — Confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, Hilltown residents and organizations are banding together as best they can to serve vulnerable populations: kids who are without school lunches, seniors who have had group meals canceled and can’t make it to a grocery store, and families who can’t afford food at all.

The outcome is a meal-delivery system facilitated by Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District bus drivers, who will bring meals to anyone in the district.

The governor this week directed schools across the state to close until at least April 1, in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.  Meanwhile, Albany County closed the senior centers and community dining sites — including the Helderberg site in Berne —for 30 days; re-opening is scheduled for April 20 but this date is not certain.

“We’re all in the kid business,” said BKW transportation administrator Amy Santandrea. “As soon we found out kids were going to be gone for an extended period of time …. we were thinking, ‘What can we do?’”

“It first started out for kids who wouldn’t be getting food,” said Kathy Stempel, director of Berne Library, where food can be donated and picked up. “But it ended up being for everybody.”

Forty percent of BKW’s 731 students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to the State Education Department; many of those students rely on free or reduced-price lunches at school.

Resources are especially critical for seniors, who may not be able to get around as easily and who have to be especially vigilant against the coronavirus. Like many other diseases, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is more likely to kill the elderly than it is people under 70 years of age.

To protect them, many senior transport services, like the one in the village of Altamont, have shut down. 

“Unfortunately, we made the tough decision yesterday to suspend our senior bus service through March 31,” wrote Altamont mayor Kerry Dineen in an email to The Enterprise. 

“We felt our concern for the health of our seniors and drivers had to be a priority and suspending service is a measure that will keep everyone safe,” Dineen concluded. “The Village understands the inconvenience this causes for our residents and we hope to restore service after the 31st if possible, however, everything is tentative with new information coming out daily.”

In Rensselaerville, Supervisor John Dolce issued a statement on Tuesday announcing that, among other changes in response to the virus, the senior bus would not be operating “until further notice.”

Dolce could not be reached for comment.

“[In Knox,] there are no  senior meals being served,” Knox’s senior services coordinator, Charlotte Fuss, said on Tuesday. “There is no transportation to the grocery store or doctors.”

Fuss said that there are approximately 50 seniors who get meals through the Knox group.


Community effort

The seed of the initiative to distribute free food came from the Berne Youth Council, which, according to Youth Council Deputy Carrie Needham, was already focused on feeding children before the virus made its appearance in the county.

She had sent Jean Guarino, the Youth Council’s director, a text about how to help and Guarino responded that she was just emailing the town with the same question, Needham said.

Eventually, word reached the school district, which already had a plan in place to allow district students to pick up breakfast and lunch meals at the Westerlo Baptist Church, Knox Town Hall, and the Town of Berne Community and Senior Center from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

“Amy Santandrea and Dr. Mundell talked about food being collected over here and it got added onto what they were doing for breakfast and lunch,” said Stempel, who is also a member of the youth council. Timothy Mundell is the superintendent of the BKW schools.

“It’s everyone coming together,” concluded Stempel.

Just as eager as local administrations were Hilltown residents who wanted to help.

“We haven’t used a dime of our budget because we’ve gotten so many donations,” Needham said. 

“We’ve had to turn people away because we want to follow guidelines and not have more than three people putting together bags [of food],” said Stempel. 

Stempel called attention to the courage that donators display in giving their own resources to others.

“They’re donating at a time when they’re uncertain what the future will be,” she said. 

A large food donation came through from the Westerlo Fire Company, which had canceled a scheduled breakfast and brought milk and eggs to the library. Donations also came in the form of money.

“We had one of the area businesses give a significant monetary donation to buy whatever we needed,” said Santandrea, referring to Citgo in Westerlo. She explained that, even if donations were to stop, that money will help the group continue providing resources to the area. 

“One mom came to the food site and collected her bags for her children,” Santandrea said, “and someone said to give her an extra bag and we did. Just the look in her eyes — I’m tearing up right now thinking about it. You could just see she was so grateful.”

“We’re going to be doing this for the foreseeable future,” she said.

More Hilltowns News

  • Some of the towns with land on the Helderberg escarpment where large wind turbines were proposed in 2008 drafted laws on wind energy; others haven’t.

  • After Dr. Kevin Knuth’s scheduled lecture at the Carey Institute for Global Good was canceled due to concerns over the coronavirus, The Enterprise spoke with the University of Albany professor and former NASA scientist about his research into unidentified flying objects, or UFOs. “The majority of sightings are misidentifications …,” Knuth said of UFO incidents, “but there’s a lingering 3-percent of cases that don’t have an explanation.”

  • After her husband’s suicide last year, Berne resident Jennifer Williams’s life has transformed as she signals optimism and strength for her two young children while pregnant with a third. She hopes her story will inspire others to remain strong in the face of devastating adversity. 

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