Keeping calm and shipping on through COVID-19

MCC Guatemala/El Salvador staff and volunteers prepared relief kits to be sent to the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala after Hurricane Eta hit the country on November 4th and 5th, 2020.

In mid-March of 2020, much of the world shut down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. MCC’s thirteen material resources (MR) warehouses in Canada and the U.S. closed abruptly, with instructions to staff and volunteers to stay home. The regular flow of volunteer groups to inspect, process and pack MR items such as canned meat, relief buckets and school kits dried up. Regular donations of MR items came to a grinding halt, while MCC shuttered quilt- and comforter-making rooms. MCC’s mobile meat canner ended its operations a month earlier than originally planned and volunteer meat canners left for home.

The global shutdown and the sudden closure of MR warehouses sparked several alarming questions. Would MCC be able to continue to ship essential MR resources to partners around the world? Would MCC have enough inventory to meet growing requests from global partners? Would we be able to load and ship containers while adhering to physical distancing and safety guidelines? Would ports still be open? Would the church-related and other community-based organizations that receive MCC MR shipments be able to clear items from customs and distribute the resources safely? In the fear and confusion following the rapid and unforeseen shutdown of all MR warehouses, several positive answers to these questions provided hope that MCC would be able to continue to ship MR to meet urgent needs around the world.

Volunteers Dennis Diller (Leola, Pennsylvania) and Melvin Weaver (Reinholds, Pennsylvania) fold comforters at the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in August of 2020.
Volunteers Dennis Diller and Melvin Weaver fold comforters at the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, in August 2020. MCC photo/Diana Voth

In late March 2020, we received a reassuring message from one of our freight forwarders entitled, “Keep Calm and Ship On.” The message said that while the transport of people was highly restricted, the shipment of goods was not being restricted and that almost all ports were open worldwide. Meanwhile, governments had agreed that trade and the flow of materials were necessary and that local governments had deemed transportation and logistics of goods to be essential businesses. This counsel proved correct: since the start of the global pandemic, MCC has experienced some minor delays in booking containers onto ships due to a global reduction in worldwide trade, but overall shipping of containers with MCC material resources has proceeded smoothly.

While MCC’s 2019-2020 meat canning season ended a month early in March 2020 due to pandemic-related restrictions, most of the production from that season had already been completed when MCC suspended the canner’s operations. Thanks to this supply, MCC has been able to fulfill all partner requests for canned meat in 2020. Canning meat while observing safety protocols is challenging. The mobile canner crew started a new canning season in October 2020, working with fewer and smaller groups to keep volunteers safe. We anticipate the production of canned meat may be 60% of normal levels in the 2020-2021 canning season. While MCC likely will not be able to fulfill all partners requests for canned meat in 2021, we are grateful for the canning crew and committees that find ways to can as much meat as possible under pandemic restrictions.

Brian Snader, packing coordinator, and volunteer Will Conrad (Lititz, Pennsylvania) check cans of meat at the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.

All local COVID-19 p
Brian Snader, packing coordinator, and volunteer Will Conrad check cans of meat at the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. MCC photo/Diana Voth

After a busy winter season of kit and comforter donations, by mid-March 2020 MCC had several warehouses with enough inventory to fulfill all shipments planned for the ensuing four to six months. This inventory allowed us to immediately plan several urgent shipments and get these resources sent out quickly, loading and shipping ten containers of material resources from mid-March to mid-May, with a total of 32 containers shipped in 2020.

Ever wonder what it looks like to pack a shipping container with humanitarian aid supplies? Rudi Niessen, warehouse coordinator, and Brian Snader, packing coordinator, worked hard to figure out the pu
Rudi Niessen, warehouse coordinator, and Brian Snader, packing coordinator, worked hard to figure out the puzzle that was fitting comforters, hygiene kits and relief kits into this 40’ container bound for Lebanon at the MCC East Coast Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. The container left the warehouse on October 6, 2020. MCC photo/Diana Voth

As inventory began running low in summer 2020, most MR warehouses found ways to reopen with strict safety guidelines for accepting donations and allowing a limited number of volunteers to return to the warehouse. By keeping calm and physically distanced in our MR warehouses, loyal volunteers have put in extra hours to inspect canned meat, bale comforters and pack kits in a timely manner. We postponed only a few shipments until 2021 and are very pleased that we have been able to fulfill most requests. Here at the end of 2020, current COVID-19 spikes are bringing new challenges leading to some renewed closures and restrictions. We are currently low on hygiene and relief kits and our ability to respond positively to partner requests for these and other items in 2021 is uncertain. While overall inventory donations are lower than normal, we have been thankful for the ongoing generosity of MCC donors to sew comforters at home and drop off kit donations at collection boxes.

Maintaining physical distance means limiting the number of volunteers, which in turn makes loading containers challenging. Jon Lebold, MR program coordinator in Ontario, loaded a full container of resources for Jordan on April 23. He reported: “To be able to safely load this container it was loaded at night when the building was empty and instead of the typical team of six to eight people, we had a small crew of three. Together, we worked to load the container while masked and gloved and while maintaining a safe distance from each other, tagging out and taking turns being in the container packing.”

Jon goes on to say: “Being able to continue shipping through this pandemic has been an absolute blessing and has been a reassurance that we are indeed doing God’s work! Loading a container with two other people in an empty building while the world seems to be shut down sounds like it may be discouraging, but to be honest it was one of the most fulfilling moments of my career. We know the requests continue to grow daily and being able to continue responding is truly a gift from God. I pray for those receiving the items that they can feel God’s Love and Peace and know that we have not forgotten about them in these trying times.”