By Chris Frost
Ventura--It was a busy afternoon at the Winchester Grill-Ventura, May 16, as the Weekly Local Love Project Pop-Up Food Distribution Project was out in full force, helping people in Ventura County care for each other because of COVID-19.
Volunteers staffed tables full of supplies and loaded car-after-car with goodies for people in the hospitality industry and musicians who got laid off or experienced lost wages because of COVID-19. Recipients were all smiles and left happy that people are willing to step up.
Attendees also received an essential home bag filled with toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, fabric softeners, candles, Girl Scout Cookies, and other items along with produce boxes.
Local Love Project Chief Executive Officer and Founder of Totally Local VC Kat Merrick organized the giveaway and began two days after the Thomas Fire ravaged the county.
The group, a 501c3 non-profit, immediately activated and started providing items like clothing, home essentials, and anything else they needed.
The group got sponsors and started to grow.
"In 2018, we distributed $1.5 million in brand new products for our community, and in 2019, we distributed $789,000 of brand new products," she said. "From January 1 to March 1, we distributed $300,000 in gift cards to wildfire survivors."
The group thought it would get a break, and just like that, the coronavirus hit Ventura County, along with the nation and the world. Merrick was back in action, no questions asked.
"We activated again and started bringing in products," she said. "We partnered with Food Forward and started bringing in produce. As of last month, we've provided produce boxes, home-essential items, and other food items to over 20,000 households."
The group also gathers at the Avenue Thrift Store each Sunday at 3 p.m., and they work with 21 different organizations that do weekly pickups.
"Those packages go out to homebound disabled, the elderly, quarantined, and low-income people who are homebound," Merrick said.
Totally Local VC specializes in agriculture education.
"We educate from field to fork and field to career," she said. "We include the restaurant industry because it's the most vital link between our farmers and when it hits your fork. We have 1,200 boxes a week going straight to the field workers when they come out of the fields. This is a thank you, not a helping hand; this is a fill the tip jar."
Firestone Walker donated over 5,000 boxes, she said, that the group put them to good use and packed them with produce.
She loves giving back to the community and working with all the different organizations that want to help.
"It's locals helping locals and grassroots," she said. "It's a massive impact done by everybody volunteering and coming together to make it happen," she said. "That's the feel-good in it."
Merrick also called the event part of her healing process as she lost everything in the Thomas Fire.
"It's been nothing but a healing process being able to do this and give back," she said.
She hasn't been able to rebuild.
"We're still dealing with the county and permitting and all that fun stuff, like the other 1,100 people are," she said. "We're ag-land, and you'd think that would be a little easier, but it's not."
She thinks the impact will take a long time to heal.
"You think about these small businesses, they are not going to come back with a full staff," she said. "Think of a restaurant and the spacing. You make your money by having your tables full and turning those tables in the amount of space you have. That's not going to happen. It's going to be a long haul before people get back on their feet."
Driver Christopher Pryor was helping direct traffic and said the event is an amazing endeavor.
"I've worked with Kat in different areas for many years, and I have been with her and Local Love since the Thomas Fires," he said. "I've been blessed in my life, and anything that affects this town affects me. If I can help be a positive influence in my town, then I am going to help."
He has a big truck license and loves helping out.
"It went from one day a week to three or four days a week, and I go to Los Angeles and get food," he said. "I also go to the ports and get fruits and vegetables from them, and I get to come here and the Avenue Thrift Store on Saturday and Sunday."
The thank-you and looks of gratitude he gets from all the people make the day worthwhile.
"I had to go to a food bank when I first moved back here, was unemployed and lived in my car," he said. "To be able to give back without any questions is a good feeling. Everybody can do something. This is something I like to do and want to do."
Musician Michael Dominguez loves volunteering with all the amazing people in the community.
"I think there are a lot of people in need right now, and this is a way that I can contribute safely," he said. "Since I am a local musician, I am impacted by everything being closed and not being able to perform. This is a nice way to give back to the community, I feel."
He plays bass guitar in a band called, "50 Sticks of Dynamite." It's a high energy blues rock band fronted by a banjo player who sounds like Jimi Hendrix.
The group performs locally in Ventura and the surrounding area.
"We're all kind of stuck at home jamming online, which is the new thing," he said. "It's fun doing that."
For more information, visit totallylocalvc.com.