D.C. locals feed children around city, persevere through COVID-19

By Anna Mudd

Fridays are delivery days for the To Be Well Fed team. Co-founder Dave Kiyvyra mans the wheel of his family’s white SUV, the back jostling with cups of oatmeal, fruit, soup and other groceries.

On Thursdays, his whole family shops. Dave, his wife Alicia, and their sons Luther, Abdisa and Memphis struggle to keep their full carts from tumbling over, like a huge game of grocery Jenga. Later, they spread the food across their floor and organize it into bright green bags. 

On Friday around 8 a.m., the team leaves their home in Ward 3 in northwest Washington, D.C. and crosses the Anacostia River, heading southeast to Ward 8. From their car window, they see the clean-cut brick row houses give way to rundown apartments and chain-link fences. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Dave would drive to Wheeler Road, walk into Eagle Academy Public Charter School and hand bags of food to a social worker. 

When the Kiyvyras first started To Be Well Fed, they served five kids at Eagle Academy, but quickly expanded to Friendship Southeast Academy and Center City Public Charter School.

A few months later, they connected with Melissa Gomes, a Student Support Coordinator at Friendship Academy, who works with Dave and Alicia to identify the neediest children. 

Inspiring action

In 2017, Alicia and Dave found clarity. Disheartened by Hillary Clinton’s loss to President Donald Trump, they sought comfort in community, starting with their neighborhood Unitarian church. 

They aren’t religious, “never have been,” Dave said. But, they wanted reassurance of good in the world. 

In her sermon, the Rev. Kären Rasmussen spoke about her nonprofit, No Child Goes Hungry. Her message that anyone can help hungry kids resonated with Dave and Alicia. They formed an idea and a sense of purpose. It doesn’t take much to help; just buy some extra groceries. 

“I feel like everything in my life has led me to where I am now with To Be Well Fed,” Alicia said. 

She remembers a similar program, called “In His Name,” that her grandfather ran when she was a little girl. She remembers his old red truck and the bed full of groceries taken from his greenhouse-turned-food-storage-space. The two drove through the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas, picking up food donations and delivering them to hungry families. 

She was young, naive and didn’t understand that most people don’t bring food to needy families. The farther she traveled from Arkansas, the more she realized this was rare. It’s stuck with her. 

On the other hand, Dave is a D.C. local. 

“I’m a native of a very privileged part of D.C.,” he said. “There’s no connection between these areas so trying to figure out how I can bridge that gap and play a meaningful role in my community is important.” 

The Kiyvyras have always known that there was a hunger problem in Ward 8. As the Director of Development for Lindamood-Bell for Schools, Dave often works in these neighborhoods. He’s seen kids fall asleep in class or eat school meals so quickly they threw up. In Ward 8 alone, 14% of kids are homeless and 47% are below the poverty line. One school they deliver to has a “detox room” for kids high from secondhand smoke or drugs they encounter at home.

“We’re struggling to help these kids read and write, but they can’t because they’re hungry,” Dave said. 

The final push came just a few weeks after the sermon. 

Dave sat at his office desk reading The Washington Post. He came across an article headlined “Did your father die?” It was about Tyshaun McPhatter, a then 7-year-old at Eagle Academy who lived in the nearby Congress Heights neighborhood. He was in school when his father was shot. Tyshaun heard the sirens and thought, “I hope my daddy is okay,” the article said.

Dave and Alicia were devastated thinking about what life was like for Tyshaun and others in the area.

Within days, they set up a GoFundMe page and used the donations to buy groceries. They wanted the food to be simple — no cooking, no prep – because many of these kids have no kitchen access. 

Donors encouraged them to create a 501(c)(3) organization, which they named To Be Well Fed. 

The bridge

The Kiyvyras  needed someone in the schools to get the food to the kids. Enter Melissa. 

She initially chose kids to receive packs of food based on the schools’ homeless list. Now, the list has grown to families who reach out to her, many living in areas deemed “food deserts.” These families often can’t drive or walk to a local grocery store.

When Melissa shows up at their homes, kids spill out of the doors, excited to see her. The parents’ relief is unmistakable. 

“You can just tell it’s this thing over their heads they’ve been worried about,” she said. 

She and the Kiyvyras have seen the impact of these donations firsthand. Pre-pandemic, Melissa would hand the bags to the kids at school. Some of them ate everything before school let out. One child opened the bag of food, grabbing the instant oatmeal cup. He was so hungry, he ate the dry flakes from the plastic container, no milk, no microwave.

Growth during a pandemic

As To Be Well Fed grew, Costco deliveries replaced the Thursday grocery trips. 

“Just when you think they’re doing everything, they step it up another level,” Melissa said. 

When the pandemic hit, she wasn’t sure Dave and Alicia would continue. But when schools closed, the Kiyvyras dropped food off at Melissa’s house so she could deliver bags directly to children’s homes. 

“You had it looking like Aldi’s in my kitchen,” she told Dave.

Following the green bags

Two siblings stand out to Melissa. A girl and boy living with their grandmother in the Woodland Terrace apartment complex in Anacostia. When Melissa shows up, the little girl runs out to help her. 

Homebound, their grandmother battles the pandemic and her own declining health. A lot of days, it’s tough to get food on the table, and the arrival of her daughter’s newborn this summer added pressure. 

The grandmother said she isn’t one to accept charity. But when the pandemic hit, “I needed to start accepting things, because it got tight,” she said.  

She’s come across a sea of people, she said, who say they care or want to help her. But, “at the end of the day they couldn’t care less.”  

She thinks the Kiyvyras and Melissa are different. 

“Everything is short and sweet. That’s about all you can say, you grateful,” she said, adding “they always say God put a special blessing and angel in everyone’s life, and he did that by putting the people that donate into my life.” 

Moving forward

Dave and Alicia don’t consider themselves angels. “There are massive amounts of inequities in this city and we know food won’t resolve those,” Alicia said. 

They said it’s important to take direct action in bridging this divide others often ignore. They hope to soon expand to four schools. 

“There’s something more tangible and meaningful from doing that action yourself. It’s easy for people to think that there’s some organization who takes care of things. In reality, this isn’t always true,” Dave said. 

Deliveries bring them a sense of hope; it’s a step toward bringing the wards together.

Every Friday in their loaded-down SUV, the family is a rolling pantry. They drive down Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, passing the Washington Monument and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. They cross the 11th Street Bridge and turn up Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, passing liquor stores, fast food restaurants and drug treatment centers neighboring the schools.

Children in Ward 8 await their deliveries, because for many of them, these food bags bring them the chance to be well fed.

Edited by Anne Tate