Pandemic complicates Sabathani leadership transition

Chris Juhn/MSR Sabathani Community Center

Center’s staff continue to ‘steady the ship’ 

“Sabathani Community Center is there for our community, strong as ever,” said Interim Director Mary Merrill. The community institution is doing what it can while in the midst of a nationwide corona virus crisis, COVID-19, which, since January, continues to devastate the country, with almost 300,000 cases claiming more than 5,000 lives thus far. 

In Minnesota, since last weekend there have been 789 infections confirmed with 410 patients in recovery and 22 deaths. The toll on businesses has been devastating. Many workers normally employed in bars, restaurants, libraries, shopping malls, movie theaters, and other high-traffic venues are out of work.  

Across the state, 95,000 new unemployment claims have been filed. Accordingly, the Twin Cities have been hit hard with State officials reporting a large number of filings from the area alone. 

People who have never used a food shelf need one now. This adds to the demand for groceries on top of some 42,000 households Sabathani already serves each year.  

Pat Anderson, Sabathani Community Center enterprise-program director, is pragmatic: “People still need to eat.” So albeit in a limited capacity, the historic institution remains open, operating the largest food shelf in South Minneapolis. 

 “We have seen an increase with clients during this crisis and [we are] pleased we are able to accommodate them,” said Sherri Green, family resources manager at Sabathani. 

Recipients can avail themselves of such staples as meat, milk, juice, fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, rice, pasta and cereal along with canned goods, packaged foods and dessert items. There are baby items, school items, and personal grooming and, importantly, hygiene supplies.  

Also open are youth and senior daycare. “I’m really excited that we’re able to keep [these parts] of Sabathani open, even though much of the rest of the building is shut down, even if we have restricted policies in place to do that.” 

“We are taking measures,” explained Merrill, “to provide the service we have for many years.” All other operations, of course, are suspended for the foreseeable future, but, normally, services would include free clothing closet, assistance meeting the rent, help with utilities and, on occasion, small furniture. 

“We are a beacon of light in the community and have been for over 50 years. We must continue meeting the needs of the community,” Merrill continued. “We’re taking a look at our service delivery.  

The Sabathani Board is considering a needs assessment and listening sessions to make sure we’re hearing what the community wants from us. [We are] serving the needs of youth, of seniors and the community at large in a many ways. That is what Sabathani was instituted to do.” 

Anderson pointed out that the building at 310 E. 38th Street is also home to related community resources. “There are more than 40 [organizations] directed at the Latino community, Somali community, and at African Americans, nonprofits that are empowered. So, we meet a wide range of needs. We just added SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which helps people along with the food shelf, especially during the [health crisis] we have going on right now,” she said. 

Anderson acknowledged that the recent departure of former Sabathani director Cindy Booker has been a bump in the proverbial road. “We’ve had changes with the transition, but the programs remain [ongoing] and we haven’t lost anything in terms of operation.”  

Anderson said the change in leadership has strengthened the organization. “With Mary Merrill, we’ve got the cream of the crop. We have no choice but to be better [with] her strong leadership, what she brings to the table, plus what we already have.” 

Facilities Manager Jesus Dominguez, who has been at Sabathani for more than 20 years, said, “I have seen the impact we make in the community through the variety of services we provide. Whether it is providing food, kids’ programs, access to health services, or providing small organizations a location to grow, it is very important for Sabathani to participate with our residents and help to improve our neighborhoods.  

“I feel very fortunate to work with such an organization and really enjoy working with the community and seeing them grow and benefit from these services,” said Dominguez. 

Founded in 1966 by Minneapolis legends Matthew Little, Harry Davis, Jr., Wayne Glanton and Reverend Stanley King in response to community concerns at Sabathani Baptist Church, Sabathani Community Center Inc. was initially created to provide recreation for neighborhood youth.  

The initial concept expanded as residents requested broader services. After operating in a number of locations, in 1979 it settled in the former Bryant Junior High School building where it is now housed, serving people of all ages, cultures, languages and needs. 

 “I’m here to steady the ship while the search [for a permanent director] is conducted,” said Merrill, who pointed out that she is not pursuing the director’s position permanently. “I’m excited that we’re in the process, that we are going to be finding someone who has the skills and relationships, [who] really understands this community, to lead Sabathani to an even higher level.  

“We’re doing a great job, but there are areas in which we can expand. More than ever, Sabathani needs the support of the community. Let’s keep Sabathani going.” 

Effective March 18, Sabathani Community Center has closed until further notice due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. However, the Food Shelf remains open from 10 am to 2 pm Monday through Thursday, adhering to the latest protocols from the Minneapolis Health Department. 

Call 612-821-2300 9 am-3 pm to reach Sabathani administrative staff for further information or assistance.