Friendship comes first for Savannah service team
By Leslie Farrell
In these times of strife and challenge, Baha’is have been called upon to continue working to better the world. Baha’is in Savannah, Georgia, are taking that summons to heart and have created a Service Task Force Team designed to reach those in need in the vicinity of the Savannah Baha’i Center.
JoNell O’Neal and Fedime von Knoblauch were already involved in Baha’i community-building activities, especially with junior youth groups, which involve people of middle-school age in study and service projects — often with teenagers as “animators” or mentors.
Since its recent establishment, the small but mighty Service Task Force Team has already carried out four major projects.
O’Neal says they have developed a motto, doing all this work during the pandemic: “Friendship comes first. You have to build relationships and friendships.” She says they are trying to maintain that attitude.
In addition to O’Neal and von Knoblauch, the team consists of Nasrin Zaer, Jurgen von Knoblauch and Khani Morgan. Emily von Knoblauch (12), Shaniyah Generlette (15), and Jahmare Generlette (17) have been deeply involved with planning and carrying out the projects.
The group’s first project was food collection and distribution to people in need. Baha’is and other friends were asked to donate food over a three-week period. Results far exceeded the group’s expectations.
A group of 10 or so, including children and teens from Savannah and Statesboro, helped sort the massive quantities of donated food and distribute it to families.
They deliberately kept the volunteer count small, due to the constraints of social distancing. Children received a variety of snacks, such as peanut butter, jelly, bread, fruit cups and other “things we felt the kids could prepare for themselves instead of adults having to do it,” O’Neal says. “We are healthy eaters.” Adults received foods like instant oatmeal, hot cocoa, rice and pasta.
The goal of the food drive went beyond giving away food. The group wanted to connect with the residents and make new friends in the neighborhood, which O’Neal says has rapidly become more diverse. The task force had some homes in mind to visit, but in the end, they decided to visit every home in the neighborhood, to check in with residents and determine if they would need food.
“The majority said they needed it, but some said, ‘I don’t, but can you give my share to my neighbor over there?’” O’Neal says. “This gave us an opportunity to meet new people in the neighborhood. We were very welcomed.” All volunteers were mindful to keep their distance and don masks.
O’Neal, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, says she was surprised to discover how many people in the area she hadn’t known prior to this experience. Von Knoblauch recently moved into the neighborhood and was delighted to meet so many people. She believes the pandemic is making it challenging to connect, yet they are building trust with those they’ve met. The Baha’is have informed neighborhood parents about junior youth groups and children’s classes and are working on building relationships.
This first project was so rewarding, the group agreed to create one project monthly, O’Neal says. The task force aims to include more volunteers, and “to find untapped people in the community who need some encouragement or support,” she says.
In December, the Service Task Force Team removed trash in the area and gave away fruit growing on the Baha’i Center’s trees. “We had a lot of grapefruit to share,” said von Knoblauch.
Because this last January was unusually cold, the task force collected personal care items for the city’s homeless people. In all, they contributed 50 bags of toothbrushes, hand sanitizers, face masks, disposable washcloths and other hygiene items.
The junior youth helped create individual bags of items and the adults distributed them to people eating dinner at the local shelter. “They were very appreciative,” O’Neal says. The group also collected gently used clothing and gave it to the Savannah Baptist Center for distribution.
To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, also in January, the task force rented a popcorn machine and handed out free popcorn in the parking lot across from the Baha’i Center.
Throughout all of these activities moral and spiritual qualities were strengthened as volunteers followed ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s example of helping those in need.
Emily von Knoblauch says of her experience, “I enjoy just giving people what they need and seeing the joy on their faces because I didn’t really know what people needed. Knowing what they need is really helpful and puts a smile on your face.” She is looking forward to their next project, a drive for school supplies. “A lot of kids can’t get school supplies, so I think we should give them to people who need it so they have the opportunity to learn.”
After each project, the group reflects and then plans for the next project.
“We’re learning how to do this in this Zoom atmosphere. It’s been a challenge for neighborhoods that aren’t tech savvy. They aren’t comfortable doing it yet but more and more are trying it,” says Fedime von Knoblauch. She says they’d like to determine who would like to meet on Zoom but doesn’t know how, and help them.
O’Neal says she’s looking forward to returning to the Center in person. “It’s a different time now. A lot of people are hesitant about people coming to their homes. I was nervous – wasn’t sure how we’d be welcomed – but they were friendly. They said nice things about the center.”
At one home the service team visited, a father of three told them, “I know who you are. You belong to the faith on the corner. I want to tell you, you have been a Godsend to the community. You came in and didn’t leave; you stayed and you are always doing things for the community.”