For Sandra Jones, CEO of R. L. Jones Community Outreach Center, it all starts with being a good neighbor and caring for the community. “I remember a time when neighbors helped each other,” she says. “At R. L. Jones, we work hard to meet the needs of those who need help and we are strong advocates for the city and its people.”
The R. L. Jones Community Outreach Center (COC), named for Bishop Roger L. Jones of Greater Holy Temple C.O.G.I.C., was founded in 2016 during the water crisis to be a bottled water distribution center organized by the state and run by local residents. As the COC began delivering cases of water to those affected by the crisis, Jones and her team found that people needed much more. “It opened up my eyes,” she remembers. “People needed food, clothing and hope.”
Jones worked with the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan (FBEM) and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to begin food distribution. “The best way to mitigate the effects of lead poisoning is good nutrition,” she states. “The area we operate in is a food desert and the only place many can get food are corner stores or Dollar General.” The need for food and water was so great that vehicles would line up for miles. “Each car carried multiple families – we were helping nearly 10,000 people per week.”
“The city needs so much and we see it every day. People need just a little bit of hope to help them through.”
Sandra Jones, CEO
Soon enough, Jones realized that in order to provide help to all who needed it, she would need to establish a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. With tutelage and financial help from the Ruth Mott Foundation and with The United Way as fiduciary, R. L. Jones COC began expanding the reach of their operation.
One of the first steps the organization took was to begin helping the community’s “forgotten” people – those who couldn’t travel to get water or food due to illness, disability or lack of transportation. They partnered with Flint’s Mass Transit Authority (MTA) to transport food and water. “We started delivering to 30 families and we now deliver weekly to nearly 1,100 households,” informs Jones.
In a partnership with Carriage Town Ministries, R. L. Jones COC has maintained the Closet of Hope Project since 2017. The Closet holds adult and child’s clothing, personal care items, toys and household items, etc. for those who need it. “Any clothing or items donated to us or to Carriage Town Ministries and other Flint organizations gets thoroughly cleaned and is available for anyone who needs it,” says Jones.
As another avenue to provide for its neighbors, R. L. Jones COC also offers job training to its volunteers and employees from Michigan Works! helping them obtain forklift certification, logistics training and general job skills. “I am a firm believer in teaching a man to fish,” says Jones. “We have had employees go on to receive their GED and achieve bigger and better things, some able to buy homes and transportation. We’ve helped them get driver’s licenses and more. And, we have workers who have been with us since the beginning and thanks to our funding, have been able to provide them a good wage.” R. L. Jones has also acted as a healthcare and vaccination station for Greater Flint and recently became responsible for handling the majority of Flint’s 2-1-1 calls for essential community services.
The good work of R.L. Jones would not be possible without the help provided by multiple organizations, foundations and individuals. “It was very hard for us in the beginning and through the pandemic,” says Jones, fighting back tears. “We wouldn’t have been able to keep the doors open without the Ruth Mott Foundation, The United Way, and Isaiah Oliver at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. We wouldn’t be able to pay our employees and continue deliveries.” Even more organizations have come forward to help. As one of Flint’s three points of distribution, R. L. Jones COC will have its parking lot completely redone courtesy of the Mott Foundation. NBC25 Owner Armstrong Williams completely insulated the COC warehouse space and provided heat to the building. “We were working in long coats, gloves and hats during the winter months and Mr. Williams volunteered to help us,” clarifies Jones. Gazall Lewis & Associates provided much needed building upgrades and the rock band O.A.R. donated funds to build a new outdoor pole barn or shed. “The band volunteered with us and wanted to do more. They sent us nearly $7,000 for a new barn,” says Jones. The barn is still waiting for City Council approval to be built. “I would like to also thank Ridgway and Shannon Easter White for their personal donation that helped us keep our doors open when we needed to make upgrades to our facility,” adds Jones.
Sandra Jones and her team are doing all they can, but the need continues to grow. “On distribution day, we still have a line that stretches for miles,” she says through tears. “Everyone is saying the crisis is over, but we are still seeing people with health problems. We are still struggling to feed these families. Water donations from the bottled water providers will end on May 31st – what will we do? How can we possibly continue to help all of them? How?” Recently, the FBEM pledged to continue food allocation and even donated a refrigeration system.
If Jones could provide one thing for the City of Flint, it would be more opportunity and trades education. “I would love to be able to provide the young and old alike with opportunities to learn skill sets and a place to use them,” she says. “The city’s residents need so much and we see it every day. People need just a little bit of hope to help them through. I’m not a decision-maker, but I can tell you that R. L. Jones COC will be there to help anyone in need.”
R. L. Jones Community Outreach Center is located at 6702 Dort Highway on the campus of Greater Holy Temple C.O.G.I.C. Food and water distribution takes place every Thursday. To volunteer, donate or for more information, call 810.787.3960.