When the Neighborhood House Association Head Start program in San Diego shut its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, Ylse Cenena was among those suddenly finding themselves in a bind. Not only did her daughters, 3 and 5, lose access to a quality preschool, they also lost the free daily meals that came with it.

At least until Neighborhood House Association – which runs the largest Head Start program in the region –  stepped in to fill the void by delivering meals for approximately 3,000 children at seven distribution sites throughout the county, including Balboa Lutheran.

“All I can say is, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for the help,’” Cenena said. “This is a beautiful program, very healthy meals. We are very grateful.”

The meals are being funded largely through a $125,000 grant from the San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund at The San Diego Foundation.

A worker from Neigbhorhood House, wearing a mask and gloves, poses in front of a cabinet full of pre-made meals.

“For many of these children, these are the only nutritious meals they were receiving,” Neighborhood House Association President and CEO Rudolph Johnson said. “This is literally a matter of life and death. No child will go hungry on our watch during this pandemic, which is why we are so grateful for The San Diego Foundation. We wouldn’t be able to do this without their support. We would have run out of resources by now.”

The grant also is helping to pay for meals at the Neighborhood House Association Senior Center in the Mountain View community of San Diego and is among the more than $5.1 million distributed to date from the San Diego COVID-19 fund.

Gifts have ranged from $25,000 to the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation to support the work of nonprofits in southeastern San Diego to $700,000 for the San Diego Food Bank. Emergency grants are made possible thanks to thousands of donations from donor-advised funds, businesses and individuals.

The giving underscores how U.S. community foundations are moving decisively to help those in need during the COVID-19 crisis, which have rallied to mobilize more than $630 million as of April 23. While community foundations have a long history of supporting others during times of crisis and disaster, the initial response to COVID-19 is unprecedented in its size and scope. As a result, community foundations are helping fill a critical void as individuals and businesses nationwide await support from government and other sources.

All of that is on display daily at Neighborhood House Association’s Balboa Lutheran Head Start, where meals are secured for children who must now stay at home.

“They get very healthy food at Head Start and it is extremely important that this continue,” said Louise, who lives in Kearny Mesa and cares for her 4-year-old grandson during the day. “These are meals that he enjoys, meals that are healthy, and he can’t wait for me to open them up as soon as I get home.

“This is a wonderful program and we have nothing but good things to say about Neighborhood House,” added Louise. “We were so excited when we found out they were going to do this.”

Said Johnson: “We are in an unprecedented time and all of us at Neighborhood House want to say, ‘thank you’ to the entire San Diego Foundation team for standing up and supporting us during this crisis.”

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