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Buffalo shooting left grieving neighborhood without a grocery store. Counseling and food giveaways are there to help

Food giveaway held at Resource Council of WNY in wake of mass shooting
Tom Dinki
Volunteers distribute food and toiletries out of a truck in the parking lot of the Resource Council of WNY on May 16, 2022, two days after a mass shooting at the nearby Tops Market on Jefferson.

This past weekend’s racially motivated mass shooting at the Tops Market on Jefferson Avenue has left Isaiah Paige anxious about his three kids’ futures.

“People are placing it now to where it's like a racial war thing going on. I’ve got three kids, like, I can’t bring them up in this,” he said.

The 32-year-old father hasn’t had much time to dwell on it though. That’s because the shooting has also taken away his job.

Isaiah Paige and his children on Jefferson Avenue
Tom Dinki
Tops employee Isaiah Paige and this three children, (from left) Jaemere, Lamere and Milayea, were on Jefferson Avenue May 16, 2022, looking for food giveaways.

Paige had worked in the deli section of Tops for the last five months; he had been set to work the day of the attack but called off with a tooth ache.

Although Tops has said it will continue to pay employees during the temporary closing, Paige hadn’t heard any details as of Monday afternoon, so he, his wife and three children, ages 3 through 6, were out on Jefferson looking for any food giveaways to help out in the meantime.

“I can't sit here and stay stagnated and keep my mind on this right here,” he said of the shooting. “I got to worry about these three right here. It's a household I gotta look after so I can't stay stagnated. Gotta do something. Family got to eat."

These kinds of struggles are exactly why a plethora of emergency mental health and food services have descended on the predominantly Black East Side neighborhood surrounding Tops in the days since the shooting.

“I think the first thing we have to do is address very immediate needs — the fear and trauma from the incident itself, as well as the food support that's necessary since the grocery store has come offline,” said Erie County Deputy Executive Maria Whyte, “and then begin to to continue to tackle the long-term, deep issues that will remain.”

FeedMore Western New York is helping run two food distribution sites in the area, one at the Johnnie B. Wiley Pavilion and another at the Resource Council of Western New York. Volunteers there have been giving out bags of free food and toiletries out of trucks, and will continue to do so until at least May 27.

More than 60,000 pounds of products have been given out at these two sites, according to FeedMore. Nearly 600 households received products at just the pavilion location on Tuesday alone.

Food giveaway held in wake of Buffalo mass shooting
Tom Dinki
Two trucks full of food were at the Resource Council of WNY on May 16, 2022. The distribution site will be there until at least May 27.

“We want to make sure that the spirit of what Tops Markets meant to us on Jefferson continues on until they reopen,” said Resource Council of WNY President Katherine Roberts.

Built in 2003 after a community push for more access to fresh food, the Jefferson Avenue Tops was the only grocery store in the 14208 zip code that is home to over 10,000 people. Many parts of Buffalo’s East Side are considered “food deserts” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Felicia Finney, picking up food from one of the distribution sites earlier this week, appreciated getting some nourishment for her children and elderly mother.

She was also just relieved to not have to go to a grocery store.

“A lot of people are scared to even go to Walmart at this point, and even our children are scared to go to school,” she said. “So this was a great help just because we can't get out.”

Those kinds of anxieties are why mental health resources are also being offered.

Free counseling held at Johnnie B. Wiley Pavilion in wake of Buffalo mass shooting
Tom Dinki
The front entrance to free mental health counseling being offered at the Johnnie B. Wiley Pavilion May 16, 2022.

The Erie County Department of Mental Health is offering free counseling at Johnny B. Wiley Pavilion, with at least six counselors on site at a given time. At least 70 people took advantage in the first two days alone.

“Their lives have been shattered, their safety has been shattered,” said county Mental Health Commissioner Mark O’Brien. “People know that this is not a random act. This was targeted to them for who they are, the color of their skin. Any sense of security and trust, to the extent that they had, has been shattered.”

The county has had discussions with the New York State Office of Mental Health about the state providing funding to continue these services, O’Brien said. Gov. Kathy Hochul has already directed $2.8 million toward transportation to grocery stores and covering funeral expenses for the victims.

“We're planning not only for what the next two weeks look like, there's other agencies that have been very deeply involved in terms of trying to plan out how we respond as a healing community over the next weeks and months,” O’Brien said. “We've just started.”

FeedMore is accepting donations at its 91 Holt St. warehouse from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tom Dinki joined WBFO in August 2019 to cover issues affecting older adults.
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