Memphis Kroc Center staying in touch with members despite social distancing challenges

By: David Ibata

The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Centers pride themselves on creating community amidst sometimes desperate circumstances. But how does one do so when a pandemic and “social distancing” forces a center to close its doors?

The Kroc Center in Memphis, Tennessee, has risen to the challenge by going virtual – staying in touch with its 10,000 members through social media, posting fitness workouts to its Facebook page, and offering daily inspirational messages by dialing an “844” phone number, among other strategies.

Salvation Army facilities in Memphis closed to the public on March 16, following guidance of the city of Memphis and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There are a number of people who count on us in a variety of ways,” said Cleo Griffin, Kroc Center director. “How were we to remain connected and engaged with them? We wanted to quickly think about resources we could deploy to our members.”

Major Marion Platt, Memphis area commander, and his staff established a toll-free number people can call – 844-830-1865 – and hear a message of hope from The Salvation Army. The line has been averaging about 200 phone calls a day.

The Kroc Center is streaming worship services on Facebook at 11 a.m. Sundays. Major Platt and musician Ronnie Murchison also are posting what they’re calling “a time of worship and encouragement” on Facebook at 6:45 p.m. Sundays.

Additionally, Facebook, Twitter and email blasts went out to Kroc Center members, advising them of resources posted online. Les Mills Fitness Classes, for example, offer 95 free workouts across eight categories for youth and adults. “Silver Sneakers” offers material on demand for older members.

The center also is producing and posting “Virtual Fitness” videos to Facebook – a series of classes, from cardio fitness to yoga, barre, kickboxing, Pilates and dance, led by Katie Veach, the Kroc Center’s health and recreation director, and her team of instructors.

“We’d already been doing some videos, so we knew we had the technology and an audience capable of using that technology to engage with members,” Griffin said. “We had to quickly determine what formats would be most desirable to people.”

“The response has been really favorable. Several of our videos have had over a thousand views. This has been our primary way of staying in touch with members.”

The Kroc Center also is assisting the Purdue Center of Hope, home to 130 women and their children, and women seeking to escape poverty, domestic violence and addiction.

Major Platt said, “We’re setting up a computer lab for the children because they will not be going back to school for at a least a month. A lot of our residents do not have the technology required for online schooling. This way, children can attend classes via the Internet.”

Back in the physical world, the Kroc Center has entered into an agreement with the Mid South Food Bank to be a food distribution center for Memphians in dire straits due to a pandemic-related job loss or other circumstances. Initial distributions were set for Mondays, March 30 and April 6. About 250 families were expected at the first event, and up to 500 families at the second.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Hoon Chung and volunteers are roaming the streets of Memphis in The Salvation Army mobile kitchen (canteen) – known as the FedEx Disaster Response Unit, for the company that donated it to the Army – taking nourishment to places homeless residents are known to congregate. They’ve been providing meals to about 250 people a day.

The initiative is supported by a Memphis resident’s idea to feed the homeless while also helping the city’s beleaguered dining industry. Donors give money that is channeled to local restaurants, which prepare boxed meals distributed by The Salvation Army. So far, seven restaurants have joined the effort: Garibaldi’s, Huey’s, Paradise, Hog Wild, Lenny’s, Pimento’s and Spell Restaurant Group.

“It’s become much bigger than we could have hoped for,” Major Platt said. “This is one of the most amazing things I’ve been a part of.”

As for the future, Griffin said, “Our city is under a ‘shelter at home’ executive order that expires April 7. At that point, we’ll determine the conditions in Memphis. If it’s possible to do some version of normal operations by then, we probably will try to get back to normal as quickly as possible. But it’s unclear what things will look like for anybody.”

If conditions continue as they are now, two of the Kroc Center’s biggest concerns are its financial outlook and the wellbeing of its staff. It has made an urgent appeal for people to maintain their memberships; the revenue stream is crucial for its operations.

The response has been encouraging.

Major Platt said, “The community is incredibly supportive. I’ve been blessed by the kindness of Memphis. They always think of The Salvation Army and want to know what we’re doing and how they can help.”

Griffin said, “We’ll continue to serve, using online resources and cooperating with local food bank to help people in need of meals. We’ll continue our canteen ministry to the homeless and try to support our staff at a reasonable level of compensation.

“Lastly, we’re trying to maintain an environment that allows us to reopen as quickly as possible with as many of the normal amenities as possible, when and if CDC and local government guidance allows for that.”