For as long as she can remember, Shana Alicia Poole-Jones has been called to service. Even as a little girl, she was putting others’ needs before her, as evidenced by a story her mom loves to tell anyone who asks.
“My mom posted on Facebook that I’ve been doing this from when I was five years old,” Poole-Jones says. “I would take my piggy bank to school to buy everyone snacks. Since I was born, I’ve been doing things to make sure people have what they need. At first, people thought this was just people-pleasing behavior, but it’s not. I was always trying to help and put others before myself. My mom tells me this has always been me, and now as a woman, I can see it.”
Poole-Jones may no longer be pulling out her piggy bank to help others, but her commitment to service is as strong as it ever was. Since March of this year, she’s been providing food and household goods to those in need through Grab and Go Table, an open-air food pantry that sits in her Maplewood front yard. An impromptu gesture at first, the program has grown from peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to a bona fide community effort that provides a full-service grocery experience for anyone in need, no questions asked.
Though Grab and Go Table is Poole-Jones’ primary focus right now, it is not her first go at community service. In 2018, she founded Keep Pushing, Inc., an organization built around the mission of helping the unhoused community by connecting them to resources that will help them transition back into homes. Over the past two years, Keep Pushing, Inc. has given out over 3500 hygiene kits, fed over 2000 families, found shelter for 65 families, provided medical care to 365 families and hosted a well-attended unhoused family reunion in Downtown St. Louis.
Though Grab and Go Table dovetails with the mission of Keep Pushing, Inc., Poole-Jones’ reasons for starting it were more personal. As she explains, she came up with the idea for Grab and Go Table as a way to provide lunches for her fourteen-year-old’s friends. When schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they were worried about how they would eat, now that free and reduced-cost school lunches were suspended. Not wanting to see them go hungry, she set up a table in her front yard and started putting out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, apples and oranges; not long after, people began leaving notes on the table asking for help. Poole-Jones cleared out her own pantry, put up a larger table and a tent and propped up a sign telling people to help themselves. Eight months later, and bolstered by donations from people throughout the community, Grab and Go Table now feeds 300 families per week and provided 250 Thanksgiving meals to those unable to provide for their own holiday tables.
“Rain, sleet or snow, we put up the tent and go the extra mile to get good, quality food to people,” Poole-Jones says. “From organic to meat to vegetarian food, we’re trying to make their lives seem normal. We let people know that no one is judging you. We’re not standing outside looking at you, and if they need more, all they have to do is ask.”
For Poole-Jones, Grab and Go Table comes during a time when she is facing her own struggles. A native of Albany, Georgia who moved to St. Louis three years ago, Poole-Jones has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 virus. As she explains, her hometown is a major pandemic hot spot – out of a community of only ten thousand residents, three thousand have died as a result of the virus. In the first months of the outbreak, she lost five family members within 48 hours and recalls getting phone calls every day informing her that another family member, church member or former classmate was fighting for their lives.
The human tragedy overwhelmed Poole-Jones, and she found herself sinking into a deep depression. However, as she was dealing with her own grief, she was also being asked to help others with theirs; she recalls her phone ringing nonstop as people would call her asking if she knew of any resources that could help them make ends meet. It was the call to action that she needed.
“At first, I thought, “Do you know what is going on in my life? I can’t focus on anything else,” Poole-Jones says. “But then I realized I had to snap out of it. I’m broken, but the people who come into my yard are broken, too.”
– Shana Alicia Poole-Jones
When Poole-Jones thinks about how Grab and Go Table has grown from a small card table to a major community effort, she is filled with gratitude. Working side-by-side with people from all walks of life, she feels that the initiative is not just filling a need for those who are hungry; it’s filling the community’s need for connection. And it’s not just those of means who are keeping the operation going. Poole-Jones has stories of people who, though in need themselves, have stopped by to offer a spare pair of gloves or have offered their food stamps money to help fill the pantry. By coming together in service of one’s neighbors, she believes that Grab and Go Table is helping to bridge political, economic and social divides by allowing people to work with one another in support of a common mission.
“Right now, we just need to show more love,” Poole-Jones says. “It’s been hard and rough – it’s still hard and rough – I still cry every day. But at the same time when I see mothers, fathers, older people come to my yard, when neighbors come up to just talk and listen, I realize that I’m going to be OK because they are going to be OK. I want to show the world that we, as a community, can still be together. This is what I am meant to be doing at this time and this moment.”