Crystal Sinclair drives around the streets of Pontiac, taking detours and pointing out landmarks to her son Ryan, 7, and daughter Rylee, 5. There are the neighborhoods, streets and homes she remembers from her childhood. There’s the park she used to go to, playing baseball and riding bikes with her friends until the sun dipped down low in the sky and they knew it was time to go home. There’s the building that used to house the elementary school she attended, now closed.
But she’s not in Pontiac to reminisce — she’s there to give back.
Coming full circle
There’s one experience from Crystal’s youth in Pontiac that she recalls vividly: picking up her free lunch in her neighborhood.
It’s a bittersweet memory. Though coming together with friends to hang out and swap foods from their boxed lunches was fun, she also knew how important the meal was.
“We really counted on those meals,” she explains. “You’d open the fridge and there’s nothing to eat. But we knew that at 12 o’clock, the bus was going to come and they were handing out box lunches. “That really, really makes a difference in people’s lives.”
As an adult, now volunteering with Meet Up and Eat Up one afternoon at the Baldwin Center in Pontiac, the reality hits home for Crystal. As she’s serving sandwiches, helping kids cut up their fruit, and answering their polite thank-yous with a smile, she remembers being that child.
“It feels like coming full circle,” she says.
Understanding the value
During the school year, more than 300,000 kids in southeastern Michigan have access to free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch options at their schools.
When summer comes, more than 740 Meet Up and Eat Up summer meal sites in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — plus hundreds more statewide — fill that need.
In the tri-county area alone, Meet Up and Eat Up sites served more than 1.73 million meals in the summer of 2015.
United Way for Southeastern Michigan plays a unique role in this effort, working to raise awareness about the program, connecting volunteers like Crystal with sites, and providing logistical, technical and strategic support across the region.
“In order for these sites to operate every day, it takes a high level of coordination, strategy, and a full partnership of multiple sectors,” explains Eric Davis, United Way’s Vice President of Community Impact, strategy and policy. “All of that requires an organization to really calibrate and strategize and coordinate, and that’s the role we play.”
When she was young, all Crystal knew was that at noon each summer day, a bus would show up in her neighborhood and someone would hand her a meal. Now that she and her husband, Steve, have volunteered at Meet Up and Eat Up, they understand all that goes into getting that meal into a child’s hands. It’s an experience they were thrilled to be able to share with their kids.
“Looking back at it, they put their time and their money into it. They put their love into it,” Crystal says. “To let my kids experience that and be on the other end of that now, it’s priceless.”
Meet Up and Eat Up also provides opportunities for corporate partners to give back to the communities they work in.
Steve Sinclair, who works at Lear Corp.—a United Way partner—said the organization is committed to the region. Not only does Lear run a workplace fundraising campaign for United Way, it also promotes an office culture that encourages donating to and volunteering with a myriad of local causes.
"The idea of giving back to the communities where we live and work started with our founders, and it’s always been a part of who we are," says Ray Scott, vice president and president of seating at Lear. "Our employees have the ability to give back financially, but just as importantly, if you want to do community service or you want to participate in a particular way, we absolutely support you and we’ll make sure we do everything we can to help you with those goals."
Steve loves the culture of giving at Lear, and says that getting involved as a donor and volunteer with United Way, Habitat for Humanity and other organizations has made him enjoy his job even more.
“Having that sense of corporate involvement in the community is important to me and other employees at Lear,” he says. “We feel engaged in the community and with people we work with.
“Lear has turned this into a part of our everyday job.”
Corporate partners like Lear play a large role in the success of Meet Up and Eat Up, and that support comes in a variety of ways.
“We have a tremendous ability to reach out to the community as a whole and many of our corporations have the pulpit to raise awareness that the program is offered,” explains Eric. “In addition to that, we hope to provide these children at these sites with a more holistic experience beyond the meals and nutrition, and the resources that our corporate partners can bring to bear really makes it easier.”
“Having that sense of corporate involvement in the community is important to employees at Lear. We feel engaged in the community."
Seeing their dollars in action
Many companies sponsor United Way for Southeastern Michigan Meet Up and Eat Up Block Parties and use the event as a volunteer opportunity for their employees.
The community block parties are held each summer in locations across southeastern Michigan to help raise awareness of MUEU sites, as well as to provide fun summer experiences for neighborhoods. There’s a DJ playing dance music, community organizations handing out information, activities for kids—and, of course, a delicious and healthy meal for all who attend.
When the opportunity to volunteer at a block party in June was presented to Lear employees, Steve and Crystal were eager to sign up—and bring their kids along for the experience, too.
Steve and Crystal have donated to United Way for years, but said volunteering at the block party with other Lear employees really drove home the impact of their dollars and the value of Meet Up and Eat Up beyond the meal: physical activity for kids, resources for families and a place for the community to gather.
“Seeing where our money that we donate goes and how it helps people — not just helps them in the sense of the meal, but also bringing the community together — that was huge for me,” Steve says.
Making philanthropy a family affair
Crystal and Steve also saw Meet Up and Eat Up as a chance to teach their kids about generosity, compassion and that the world is much bigger than their neighborhood.
At the Madison Heights block party, Ryan met new friends. He and Rylee raced through a blow-up obstacle course in a park they had never played in. They ate dinner and drew pictures and got their faces painted.
And they learned about giving back.
“I wanted our kids to be involved with Meet Up and Eat Up to show them that even though they’re just handing out a lunch, it really does make a huge difference."
“I wanted our kids to be involved with Meet Up and Eat Up to show them that even though they’re just handing out a lunch, it really does make a huge difference,” Crystal said. “You’re showing them that there’s a lot out there and it’s not just their own little world. It’s important for my kids to be able to see that and understand it.”
And sometimes, Steve adds, you need to step out of your normal daily routine to make those moments of understanding happen—even for himself and Crystal.
“Every day, going to work, taking the kids to school, trudging through daily life, you start to feel a bit removed from the community that you work in,” he says.
Eric, who oversees the United Way for Southeastern Michigan team that coordinates Meet Up and Eat Up, believes that it’s a perfect initiative to inspire the innate desire we all have to give back. It’s something he hopes to show to his daughter, too.
“It is really powerful when we allow ourselves to be giving individuals and take time out of our busy schedules,” he says. “I want my daughter to see that I’m willing to give time, money, effort, energy, thought and passion to make my community a better place.
“Meet Up and Eat Up is designed to tap into that caring power and allow for people to really be a part of the community and give back in meaningful and powerful ways,” he adds.
And through Meet Up and Eat Up comes a truth the Sinclairs know well: An afternoon of playing kickball, hula-hooping and eating food with friends and family can become a memory that impacts a lifetime.