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How Ferguson Is Coming Together To Help Struggling Families

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Volunteers at the Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri. | Ryan Reilly/HuffPost

WASHINGTON -- Even before the death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 and the unrest that has followed, the Rev. Steve Lawler had seen interest in his church's food pantry rise.

"The demand has been high anyway, because it's back-to-school time," Lawler told The Huffington Post. "A lot of families, by the time you buy school supplies and clothes, don't have money to cover all the food that they need."

The violence of the past two weeks exacerbated this already difficult situation. With many stores closed, families have been unable to obtain food and other essential items. Unable to restock its shelves, the food pantry at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church also was forced to close in the days immediately following Brown's death.

Thanks to hundreds of donations from individuals and groups, however, the pantry is now back up and running.

"Our parking lot was pretty much full with folks showing up and getting food," Lawler said Tuesday. "Today has been our best day yet for food distribution."

In addition, the church has been coordinating with other local churches and food pantries to make sure supplies get to the community, and it has sent sandwiches, bottled water, granola bars and other items to the site of the protests, about two miles away on West Florissant Avenue.

"There's just great people out doing all kinds of good things," Lawler said of the community's response.

Other groups have similarly stepped in to help families in the Ferguson area. On Saturday, a number of organizations, including the the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, the United Way of Greater St. Louis and the St. Louis Area Foodbank, set up up a "community resource drop-in center" at the Dellwood community center.

Four-hundred boxes of food were distributed at the center on Saturday, according to Angelia Bills, vice president of communications for the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. But food was only half the point. The organizers also set up supervised children's activities like a moon bounce, face painting, and sports like kickball, soccer and basketball. Parents could meet with counselors and local agencies while their kids played. Churches provided free shuttle rides from the Canfield Green apartments near the site of the shooting.

The idea for the drop-in center emerged at a local community meeting last Thursday. Ellicia Qualls, executive director of the Urban Sprouts Child Development Center, which has locations in nearby University City and Olivette, had been concerned that, as protesters and the media descended on Ferguson, the community's needs were being forgotten. And with school canceled until next week, kids often had nowhere to go.

"I thought it'd be good to put together a respite-type event where parents could come and we would have activities for their children, and partner agencies would then provide resources to help them sustain," Qualls said.

When she and an Urban Sprouts parent, Bijal Desai-Ramirez, proposed the event at the community meeting, "the agencies stepped right up," Qualls said.

"What really sticks with me is that we said everything that was going to be there: These are the partnering agencies, we'll have counseling, we'll have provisions and resources, basic needs that you can take with you, and we'll also have all these activities for kids, because our babies just need a break," Desai-Ramirez said. "That's when I saw people's faces sort of change. They exhaled and released, and they said, 'Yes, that's what we need, we need a break.' That really resonated with me."

The two women worked nonstop for two days to pull the event together by Saturday. "I didn't sleep," Qualls said. Desai-Ramirez said that 300 people came to the event, including more than 100 children.

Bills said the Urban League continues to hand out school supplies at the Dellwood community center each day this week, and the organization is gearing up to give away food once again on Saturday.

"It's been a nice little oasis in the middle of total chaos," Bills said.

This week, the Wellspring Church in Ferguson announced that it, too, would offer educational activities, counseling and free lunch to kids, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day this week. It provides parents with a little break, Pastor Nora Jones told HuffPost, and offers kids a way to process the recent events.

"Some of the kids had just some anxiety, particularly some of the older kids," Jones said. "They wouldn't talk about it, but you could definitely see it in their faces and in their quietness.

"But most of the kids were just happy to be here, that they had a safe place to be," she added.

Ryan Farmer, the communications manager for the St. Louis Area Foodbank, said many people are frustrated.

"When businesses are closing early, when schools are not back in session after they were scheduled to go back last Thursday, I think you've got a level of frustration," Farmer said on Tuesday. "I talked to a gentleman today. His daughter is a student in the Ferguson school district, and he's like, 'She's a straight-A student. She's frustrated. She wants to be back at school. It's time for her to be back at school, and she can't go.'"

Farmer said, however, that the outpouring of support from the Ferguson community and elsewhere has been inspiring.

"Its just been overwhelming to see the support, not only from the local community, but from people across the country, across the globe. I've seen donations from New Zealand, Canada, the list goes on and on. It's just amazing."

One notable supporter is Julianna Mendelsohn, a teacher in North Carolina, who set up a Fundly campaign online to support the St. Louis Area Foodbank in the wake of Brown's shooting. The campaign has gone viral and has raised more than $130,000 so far.

"It's been overwhelming just to see what one person can do out of the kindness of her heart," Farmer said. "It's been remarkable."

Still, none of the people involved in the response efforts feel their work is done.

"I'm here to stay," Qualls said. "I want to be a part of the long-term solution."

The protests are continuing, school is still not back in session and the economic impacts will likely reverberate. If stores remain closed or business stagnates, the lost jobs and wages will likely translate into an increased need for food for many families.

"I don't think that the recovery from this is going to measured in days or weeks. I think it's going to be months and years," Farmer said.

"There's still hungry people, and there's going to be hungry people in this community long after the cameras and the spotlight goes off of Ferguson."

Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.

See some photos of the community response in Ferguson below:

Support Ferguson through the food pantry at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church via the donation widget at the top of the page.