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When coronavirus struck, she stepped up: Meet the food fairy of West Philly

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Sam Samuel delivers school lunches out of her van to families in West Philly's Mantua neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sam Samuel delivers school lunches out of her van to families in West Philly's Mantua neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On a blustery Thursday morning, Sam Samuel wound her black minivan through West Philadelphia’s Mantua neighborhood.

To an outsider, her path was inscrutable: A left turn here. A right turn there. A loop back around.

At irregular intervals, Samuel hit the brakes, slid the side door open, and hustled up to a neighbor’s door with bags full of sack lunches and Wawa-brand milk cartons.

“Here you go, baby…”

There was only one door Samuel wouldn’t approach, a house on 34th Street where the man inside had a pair of “wolfdogs.” Samuel insisted he come on the porch if he wanted his food.

She called — put the man on speakerphone — and bellowed:

“I ain’t playing this with you!”

The man didn’t play. He appeared on his porch a few seconds after the phone call ended.

Such is the power of Sam Samuel, 50, community organizer extraordinaire in a time when communities need champions.

Samuel has lived in this neighborhood just north of Drexel University all her life.

She knows the streets. She knows the patchwork of rowhomes.  She knows the people — how many kids they have and, yes, how many wolfdogs.

Samuel also knew that when Philadelphia announced the sites where it would distribute free meals during ongoing school closures, kids in her neighborhood would be left out. None of the schools in Mantua were designated as distribution hubs. The nearest site was a school in the neighboring Belmont section of West Philadelphia — a mile or more from where many Mantua residents live.

That didn’t sit right with Samuel or other members of the Mantua Civic Association, where she serves as treasurer.

“What the hell is this about?” wondered Gwen Morris, an officer with the civic association.

So Morris, Samuel, and others started pestering local leaders — and, in the meantime, they filled the gaps themselves.

On the first day of meal distribution, Samuel rolled up to the nearest site, flashed her “Mantua Civic Association” card and asked for 50 meals. The woman at the site complied, and the Sam Samuel delivery service was up and running. Before long, she and a group of volunteers were dishing out meals for 160 kids.

Sam Samuel delivers school lunches out of her van to families unable to pick up the assistance in West Philly’s Mantua neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

No questions asked. No hesitation.

“Had no choice,” Samuel explained. “Because the kids couldn’t get nothing down here.”

‘I know where everybody is’

Samuel caught the community organizing bug from her grandmother, who worked with a group called Mantua Community Planners. She recently retired from a career in government — including stints in the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the FBI.

The ongoing coronavirus crisis has hit home for her in a couple of ways.

One of her two children is a registered nurse at Temple Hospital, a job with obvious perils. Samuel herself recently came down with an ailment that knocked her off the delivery route for a week. She says it was probably the seasonal flu, and a test ruled out COVID-19.

“I was a little under the weather, but I’m back up,” she said.

While coordinating food delivery from her bed, Samuel and other members of the Mantua Civic Association lobbied city officials for a meal site in their neighborhood. Those efforts paid off this week, when they were promised use of a community center at 35th Street and Haverford Avenue to pass out student meals. On Monday, the city also added two “food sites” in Mantua where families can pick up one box of food per household, twice a week.

“I just hope that the children that need it the most are getting the meals,” said Gwen Morris. “That’s really what our work has been about.”

If all goes well, Thursday’s version of the Sam Samuel delivery service will be the last. On Monday, she’ll be sitting behind a table at the community center. She already has the routine worked out in her head.

“As I see Auntie Mabel come up I know for a fact that Auntie Mabel got the five grandkids. “I’ll put the five bags on the table.”” said Samuel, who peppers her sentences with references to people and street corners that only locals can understand.

As she swung through the neighborhood on her delivery route, that fluency was on full display. She didn’t use a list or a map. She just knew where to stop — and exactly how many meals to grab for each house.

“It’s ‘cuz I done done this for so long,” Samuel said. “Basically by living in the community I know where everybody is.”

On the 3500 block of Mt. Vernon Street, neighbors waited in their doorways as she arrived.

“They usually know what time I’m here,” Samuel said.

At one house, a mother asked Samuel about the school district’s plan to distribute Chromebooks so students can do online learning. Did Samuel know what time of day the pickup would take out?

“I’ll find out for you,” Samuel vowed. “Because I’ll be talking to them probably later on.”

“Yes ma’am,” the mom replied. “Thank you.”

Community work never stops — especially not in the middle of a generational crisis.

However neighborhoods pull through the next few months, it’ll be people like Sam Samuel who lead them there.

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