BALTIMORE - The cars were lined up, at least 20 deep in two rows, well over an hour before a single meal would be distributed. By 1 p.m., that line would multiply into the hundreds, snaking all the way around the sprawling lots at Mt. Pleasant Church and Ministries, requiring about a half dozen volunteers just to direct traffic to keep the procession streamlined.
The large loading dock area was stocked with table after table of milk and produce and sundries, while volunteers unloaded a freezer truck that was stocked to the roof with food, too. Tables were added under the large tent where those cars would soon pull up to receive the food, much of it already lovingly pre-prepared, that would be going to these needy families in a COVID-19-safe drive-through.
Months of planning was paying off; a critical need was being served. But two of the people very much at the heart of this food distribution event could not be there. They were receiving regular updates via text and emails, blown away by the scope of the scene and how many cars were wrapped around the parking lot. Their hearts were lifted by how well everything was going, hopeful to be able to replicate this every two weeks. But, for the time being, given the NFL's protocols about large gatherings and contact with strangers, they could only watch via technology from afar.
Ravens starting left guard Bradley Bozeman, and his wife Nikki, who made national news when they took their anti-bullying campaign to schools literally across the country this spring with their RV tour, and whose Bradley and Nikki Bozeman Foundation had become synonymous with helping school kids learn to treat one another with kindness and empathy, were transitioning, as we all are, during this pandemic. And they were doing it, as always, with a commitment to serve others. Their foundation was feeding families in Baltimore Tuesday, without them in person with them very much present in spirit.
"We felt like this was the best way to try to continue to help kids and families in need," Bradley Bozeman told me Tuesday night, as the final numbers for how many people have been served at Mt. Pleasant started coming in. "It became clear back in the spring, with what was going on with the virus, that we couldn't really get into schools anymore to spread our message. Obviously, everything was being closed down as far as having school assemblies and guest speakers and the things we would normally do with our Foundation.
"But there is a big connection between what we are doing now, and the schools because usually a lot of kids would be getting meals through the schools, and with things going virtual they aren't able to get it anymore. And food insecurity is such a big issue and we want to make sure as many kids as possible get meals and families can stay fed and healthy and we want to help out any way we can."
Conversations about how to pivot their charity work, which began about a month after they returned from their RV tour, had turned into action. The pandemic had reshaped what they could do, directly, themselves (the Bozemans are strictly adhering to the NFL's edict for players and spouses to avoid any gatherings of 10 people or more and to try to keep contact with others to a minimum in an attempt to avoid the Covid outbreaks that have derailed the MLB season). But the impact they were having on some of Baltimore's neediest families continued.
Tuesday's event was the culmination of synergy between the Bozeman Foundation, Bozeman's representation at the Katz Advisory Group, Mt. Pleasant, and Nourish Now, a Maryland-based non-profit food bank, specializing in food recovery from grocers, cafeterias, caterers and restaurants. Green Bay Packers safety Darnell Savage, who played at the University of Maryland and, like Bozeman, is represented by agent Seth Katz, has also partnered in this event, and between the Bozemans, Savage, Katz Advisory and Nourish Now, in a matter of hours, 350 families were provided with family-relief boxes, each containing a five-day supply of food for a family of four (three meals a day), for a total of 21,000 meals. They also provided 850 fresh, prepared meals and 300 half gallons of milk.
"This was really supposed to be kind of a test run," Nikki Bozeman said. "We were just kind of testing to see would people come and could we make this happen. We really wanted to be there ourselves, but obviously, with Covid, we couldn't really do that. And with this being the first event, we just wanted to make sure that everybody was going to be safe and just kind of see how everything could proceed.
"We didn't really publicize it or talk about it, and we only sent out like one message on our Foundation Facebook page and maybe a few Tweets. And then to have people there hours early waiting in their cars in line, it makes your heart so full because you're like, 'This is exactly what they needed.' And it shows that there are so many things we can do and so many issues going on.
"But if we can tackle the small things like giving a family a hot meal and food for a week, that is a big deal for them, checking off a baseline concern for a family. That's something we can have an immediate impact doing. We can help that mom check that box and she knows she has food to feed her kids the next five days, and she won't have to go hungry to do it, that's a big deal. So we're trying to do this every other week and then as we make more partnerships on the food side of things, then we're hoping to move to every week. And obviously, we're serving a need because of what we saw (Tuesday) with how many people were lined up."
The NFL connections to Tuesday's food relief effort did not stop with the Bozemans or Savage. Savage also found out about Mt. Pleasant's food initiatives through teammate and fellow safety Adrian Amos, a Baltimore native who is very active in this community and has been supporting this church's endeavors for years.
"All of the food you see here," said Darryl Brace, the assistant pastor at Mt. Pleasant, pointing to large loading dock with long tables filled with boxes of food, "was paid for by a donation from Adrian Amos of the Green Bay Packers. "He grew up in Mt. Pleasant and his mother still attends here. He made a sizeable donation to support our food drive."
Nikki Bozeman said: "Adrian has been awesome in giving back to Mt. Pleasant so they can continue to do this food drive and it's really cool seeing guys from different areas - Bradley is from Alabama but plays here and these two guys who grew up here or played their college ball here - all coming together for Baltimore. It's really cool to be a part of."
The Bozemans are just entering their third season in Baltimore, but have developed deep roots here quickly via their foundation. Katz's family is entrenched in this area, helping to build Churches and support the needy in this region and his father has strong ties to Mt. Pleasant going back decades. Katz also has strong connections to Nourish Now through the vice president of their board, Lisa Goldberg. It was only natural that as the Bozeman's sought to shift their focus amid the pandemic, and without access to schools, partnering with the non-profit and a large church that was already helping feed people made perfect sense.
"Our community, like others across the country, is feeling the physical and financial devastation of the ongoing public health crisis," Katz told me as the first cars began pulling up to the tent to receive their meals. "The number of children, families and seniors in need of emergency food assistance continues to rise at an alarming rate, and we must all do our part to support our neighbors and communities.
"The Bradley and Nikki Bozeman Charitable Foundation and the Savage Family Charitable Initiative have answered the call. Their sustained commitment to Mt. Pleasant Ministries and the strategic food distribution initiative they together launched with Bishop (Clifford) Johnson and Katz Advisory Group will provide tens of thousands of meals to children, families and seniors in need throughout Baltimore. I could not be prouder of their work."
The Bozemans prioritized not only getting families the basics of eggs, bread and milk but wanted to also provide ready-made meals that would be easy to make. They contemplated every detail about how to best serve others.
"It's great to provide baseline needs to a family, but when you can also hand them chopped food that you prepared just for them, and they know it was prepared just for them, it just feels different," Nikki Bozeman said. "It feels better, and they know someone took the time to cook all of this just for them. That was a big thing for us, to have prepared hot meals to go with the family-relief boxes."
Goldberg's expertise has been vital to the operation as well. Her work with Nourish Now previously had been centered more in Montgomery County, an area of Maryland closer to Washington, D.C., but with coordination with the Bozemans the non-profit is now making major headway in Baltimore City, too with expertise in applying for grants and public money, as well as strong bonds with restaurants, caterers and supermarkets that have excess food supply at times.
"The need in Baltimore is so acute," Goldberg told me while stacking containers of food on a table. "Baltimore is actually a food desert."
Over at the next table, Alan Hobbs from the Bozeman foundation, who worked tirelessly with the Bozemans to plan their 18-school, 16-state, 5,000-mile anti-bullying RV tour (which had to be cut a few days short due to Covid), was stacking food boxes as well. He scrolled through his emails to find when he and the couple started focusing on ways to help kids and families outside of the school environment.
"It started back in May," Hobbs said, "and it really went into overdrive two weeks ago. We were thinking this would be a soft launch to see if could maybe distribute 250 meals if enough people showed up... But look at that line of cars. It's already down to the red light."
Pastor Brace was already looking back towards the street, on the other side of the lot, taking in the drove of cars that continued to pull up, still well before when the distribution would begin. He didn't have much more time to talk or stand still. He left the tent to begin helping direct the flood of cars approaching his church.
"It's just a blessing to have so many people helping us here," he said.