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Manna from Heaven

By Maria Elizabeth McVoy

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the

form of bread.” — Mahatma Ghandi

A bitterly cold morning in January my family and I walk hurriedly down the W&OD trail to

Purcellville East — we’re running late. Trees on either side of the trail stretch up in a

tangle of bare branches to a clear blue sky. A dirt path, worn down by the passage of

many feet, leads us from the trail to a cluster of white two-story apartment buildings

tucked away behind the Victorian houses and crisp businesses on Purcellville’s Main

Street. Rusted over metal stairways lead to compact box apartments without balconies.

The small complex of just forty-four units is littered with dejected remnants of when the

community was built in the mid 1980’s: a metal slide; a trio of old belt swings, one

broken and slung up over the bar; and a single basketball net on a small square of

blacktop crusted over with mud and crushed leaves— all rusted over like the

abandoned playground set from an eighties movie. In the center of the parking lot I see

an impossible-to-miss sapphire blue SUV with BetterALife plates, and a broad

shouldered young man pulling out reusable grocery totes filled with oversized paper bag

lunches. He directs us to the building where his mother, Elizabeth Ford, founder of

BetterALife, has already begun handing out monthly lunches to the children of this

forgotten community.

There is a Victorian vision of poverty held by people who have never themselves lived in

poverty: rundown tenement housing with broken windows, and thin, ragged children

begging on street corners or stealing from food carts or rubbish bins like Dickens’ Oliver

Twist; or rural homesteads in the middle of nowhere where people look as if they’re

living in another century without modern conveniences. Poverty is not always an

eyesore; suburban poverty is almost invisible to those who don’t wish to notice. In the

past year I mentioned making a donation to our local food pantry to an out-of-state

relative who was flabbergasted to hear that there was any poverty in Purcellville at all:

“but you live in such a beautiful town!”

Loudoun is the wealthiest county in the nation with a median household income of

$139,915 but our scenic, wealthy county is also home to over 10,000 food-insecure

children. Many of these children rely on school meals as their only source of daily

nourishment. However, 57% of these food-insecure families are ineligible for Federal

nutrition programs; some children’s parents make just a few dollars over the limit that

would make their children eligible for free school meals. Often food-insecure children’s

lunch accounts remain past due the entire year, potentially denying them breakfast and

lunch at school, their only reliable meals. With the constant growl of empty tummies

these students have trouble concentrating on their schoolwork; this leads to lower

grades, and fewer opportunities after graduation, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

Some children, bereft of hope, unaware of other options open to them, turn to stealing

out of desperation.

While so many visitors and residents look around and see only the beauty of Loudoun

County, others are forced to look beyond the facade of luxury and prosperity to the

masked suffering of those being left behind. For Elizabeth Ford the catalyst came in

early 2016 when a member of her Church congregation gave a testimony during

Sunday Worship. The friend worked as a school employee in Loudoun County School

District and described discovering some children sneaking into the cafeteria after school

to pick their dinner from the discarded lunch remnants in the cafeteria trashcans.

Elizabeth’s voice broke as she described the testimony to me: “I was in tears. I mean

who wouldn’t be? It was heartbreaking. They thought somebody was breaking in and it

was these kids.” The entire church congregation wept, but for Elizabeth it was more

than a moment of catharsis. No stranger to supporting food insecurity at her children’s

schools, she was already helping with backpack buddies and other school sponsored

initiatives — “you can only do so much,” she confided — but this testimony of

desperation tore at Elizabeth’s heartstrings and it didn’t seem like enough anymore. No

child, regardless of their parents’ income, should be reduced to digging through garbage

for their meals. It was her husband who inspired the solution: “do your own nonprofit,”

he suggested.

In Loudoun County, where so many have so much, it takes relatively little to support a

single child’s school meals. Daily school lunch for a child is $3.10: less than the

amount many commuters spend on their daily cup of Starbucks. It costs BetterALife

$62.00 per month to fully sponsor lunch for a child, and $104.00 per month to provide a

child with both breakfast and lunch.

As 2016 wound to a close, Elizabeth founded BetterALife, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit

organization, with her husband Carnadi and her friend Michelle. Their mission: “To

leave no child hungry. We believe a child will study more and have more opportunity for

success if they start their day with a full belly versus thinking about if they will have a

next meal.” With a $25 donation from a member of her church and the remainder from

her own personal bank account, Elizabeth called their first elementary school with $75

of giving in their initial account, to ask if BetterALife could help. That principal was

delighted to share with me her experiences with BetterALife: “Elizabeth Ford reached

out to me in January of 2017...out of the blue, a blessing to our community! Without

knowing our students and families, she offered to pay off lunch debts. This continued

over the course of many years; it almost seemed like Elizabeth had a sense as to when

we were most in need! There were even times individuals who knew her also reached

out to me to provide for our students. When families were unable to purchase

groceries, her donation of gift cards provided them with a means to get food.”

“It costs money just to run a nonprofit, unfortunately, you’d think it’d be free.” Elizabeth

laments. Running a nonprofit charity means constantly seeking donations to support

their mission. Much of the funding for BetterALife is a month-to-month penny pinching

operation, with a twenty-five dollars here and a hundred there scrounged to pay for as

many children’s lunches as BetterALife’s account could afford each month. Elizabeth’s

friend Michelle at that time worked for the Virginia government and was able to talk to

some people at work about BetterALife. Elizabeth’s husband arranged for BetterALife

to appear on the Employee Match List at his job, a list of charities from which

employees could choose to donate and have an equal amount matched by their

employer. Elizabeth began by simply telling everyone she knew about her newly

founded charity and its purpose: her church congregation; her friends; her colleagues

at work; the moms she met at events for her kids. She asked the Giant in Leesburg if

she could set up a table outside and they were happy to accommodate. Sitting outside

Giant, Elizabeth handed out flyers, accepted checks, and made contacts for future

events to raise funds for BetterALife. The manager at The Greene Turtle (now

unfortunately out of business) across the street approached Elizabeth’s table, invited

Elizabeth to come meet her staff, and offered to host a fundraiser night for BetterALife.

With documentation in hand to show that BetterALife was a 501(C)(3) charity, Elizabeth

approached the management at Costco in Leesburg, VA to ask for donations and

initially received five $25 gift cards. One of BetterALife’s most successful fundraising

campaigns came from Elizabeth’s annual emails to greater Washington’s favorite sports

teams: they each annually present her with items she could auction off to the highest

bidder at local festivals and events. Some of these items included a signed picture of

Washington Wizards’ Mike Scott, a Washington Redskins laser engraved football,

tickets to a Nationals Baseball game, and an autographed 8X10 of Capital’s defense

player Dmitry Orlov.

For the past half-decade, BetterALife, its founder Elizabeth Ford, and her team —

entirely made up of volunteers —have stepped in to the fill the gap between children

eligible for free meals at school and those ineligible children who need those free meals

as well. In its first month BetterALife paid off the past due accounts of thirty-eight

children and added a positive balance to keep those children fed. On 29 April 2019 they

began supporting a second elementary school, and on 6 March 2020 they began

supporting their third with ambitions to add a further one or two schools if funds would

allow. In total BetterALife has fully supported ten children in their sponsorship program,

providing the funds for school breakfast and lunch to those children’s accounts for as

long as they needed the assistance. Since BetterALife was founded, they have helped

hundreds of children have access to school meals by funding over 4000 lunches.

In March of 2020 the Covid-19 lockdown changed everything. With nationwide

unemployment rising rapidly and the number of families suffering food insecurity

increasing, Loudoun County School Nutrition Services expanded and extended their

free breakfast and lunch meal service to all students in the Loudoun County School

district regardless of financial circumstances. The program extended through the

summer months and into the 2020-2021 school year. Elizabeth and BetterALife

continued to help the elementary schools they’d been previously supporting, as one of

her principals confided to me: “When the pandemic hit, [Elizabeth’s donation of gift

cards] continued in addition to bagged food being provided for families in need.”

Elizabeth knew how the pandemic was affecting those who were already financially

vulnerable, determined that BetterALife could do more, she Googled the nearest

Section 8 neighborhood. Section 8 Housing refers to Section 8 of the Housing Act of

1937, which authorizes the payment of rental housing assistance to private landlords on

behalf of low-income households. Elizabeth knows all about Section 8 housing from her

own childhood; she grew up in several Section 8 neighborhoods, and was “kicked out of

a few” when her mother couldn’t afford the remainder of their rent. Much of the time it

was just kids at home in these neighborhoods then, as it is now. “You can’t really be a

kid because your parents have to work; so kids learn to cook, clean, and care for

younger siblings,” she confided. “I could cook oodles of noodles six different ways,” she

declares with part pride and part acknowledgement of the tragic necessity of a child

having to cook for herself in the absence of her parents. I ask if any organization like

BetterALife ever came to bring food to the Section 8 neighborhoods where she lived.

She recalls to me a church bus that would roll through the neighborhood sometimes

bringing lollypops: she would leap aboard with such excitement to get her lolly, so

sweet but not very filling when she was hungry.

Elizabeth’s Google search found Purcellville East, a small apartment complex

completely hidden from view just a couple of miles from her own house. Elizabeth

contacted the leasing office to obtain permission to bring food to the residents. She was

told she could just drop off food items in the small shared laundry room, which was a

dismal sight: “a table piled high with cans of mostly green beans, green beans galore.”

Elizabeth asked if instead she could distribute lunches door-to-door.

On 01 August BetterALife passed out lunch bags door-to-door at Purcellville East for the

first time. When preparing the bags Elizabeth thought of the lunches she would pack for

her own children, and of the advice she’d been given by the principle of one of the

schools BetterALife helps: “food-insecure children are lacking protein; these kids need

protein.” So every packed lunch begins with one meat product, such as Beefaroni or

ravioli, a protein bar, flavored milk in chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, she adds goodies

such as a fruit snacks, nutrigrain bars, granola bars, chips, and also a breakfast bar or

cereal box for the following day’s breakfast. Every item is nonperishable. For the

elderly members of the community she substitutes chicken soup or soft beef stew,

coconut water or a hydration drink, and she includes the goodies for them too — adults

love goodies. Once a month, since August, Elizabeth and BetterALife pack seventy to

eighty lunch bags and distribute them in Purcellville East, one to each person who

wants one.

It costs BetterALife about $275 to feed the Purcellville East community lunch each

month at approximately $3.50 per child’s basic lunch — “not bad at all” Elizabeth says

with pride. The six bags she puts together for the elderly members of the community

are a little pricier at $5 per bag, as they contain adult portions.

As the Christmas season began in 2020, Elizabeth knew that celebrations for the

people she was helping in Purcellville East would be bleak. Three weeks before

Christmas she printed up a flyer and taped one to each door in Purcellville East:

“Santa’s Helpers are coming!!” it declared in all capitals. “12/19/2020 at 1pm. Get

ready for Christmas Fun!!! We will not only bring lunch but have a surprise toy for your

little ones!!! Please text me or call with your toy requests — Hosted By BetterALife Inc.”

The flyer included her cell phone number. Elizabeth swiftly began receiving texts with

toy requests, older residents of Purcellville East sent requests for their visiting

grandkids; she began receiving texts for gift requests from the neighboring Section 8

apartments as well, and to her complete surprise from three Section 8 apartment

complexes in Leesburg. “Everyone had my cell,” she laughed. Elizabeth asked Jersey

Mikes, located in Purcellville Gateway, to host a toy collection bin where Purcellville

residents could drop off donations; the restaurant that Elizabeth described as having “a

heart for giving” was only too happy to oblige. BetterALife’s goal was to provide one toy

per child and Christmas dinner, but the overwhelming community response achieved so

much more. Elizabeth’s daughter Emma, a senior and a manager for the football team

at Independence High School in Ashburn, organized the football team to contribute

hams donated by Costco so that every family could have one for Christmas dinner.

Over 320 toys were donated to BetterALife— more than three times the amount they

were trying to collect — enabling them to give not just one but two or three toys to each

child and still have leftover toys to distribute through the year as birthday gifts to the

children of Purcellville East. At the time Elizabeth was still recovering from double wrist

surgery; Elizabeth’s husband, and their 10-year-old twin sons, Alexander and Nicholas

lovingly wrapped each gift. Over the two-day event twenty-five volunteers braved the

cold and ice to bring Christmas to five Section 8 neighborhoods located in Purcellville

and Leesburg — their biggest giving event since BetterALife was founded. For the

children in these Section 8 neighborhoods BetterALife provided a genuine Christmas

celebration as their eager hands unwrapped much longed for gifts with tummies

bursting, their faces glowing with contagious smiles from ear to ear—in 2020 they

experienced the loving contentment that Christmas should hold for all children under

heaven. “God made a way,” Elizabeth acknowledges, “It’s all God. I wouldn’t be able to

do this if it weren’t for Him.”

On that cold January morning Elizabeth greets our family, a smile twinkling in her eyes

with no mention at all that we arrived later than we intended. Her son, Michael, comes

up behind us to replenish the swiftly emptying totes of bagged lunches everyone is

carrying. There are nine volunteers this morning to distribute lunches in Purcellville

East, including my family, Elizabeth’s husband and eldest son, Greg Hunanian,

Publisher of Purcellville Living, and Purcellville’s Captain America. Elizabeth gives my

elementary age children a special task: a patron of BetterALife who owns his own

business, generously donated multiple $100 Visa gift cards that were meant to be

included in the Christmas giving the previous month, but were held up in the post; my

children clutch gift cards in mittened hands ready to give one to each family. The

children in the apartments, most still in their pajamas, and some so very small they

haven’t yet been convinced that dressing is worthwhile beyond underwear and a shirt

are delighted to see us, especially the packets of chips in their lunches and their hero,

Captain America. We knock on each door in succession and Elizabeth greets each

resident as if theirs is the only apartment she is visiting today. Unhurried, she asks one

woman about her arthritis, another couple she asks if their grandchildren are visiting this

weekend (they are and we pass out lunches for each child), for one apartment she has

a special lunch set aside that contains no pork, at some apartments she switches to

Spanish and, though I understand only a word here and there, the lilting melody of her

voice reaches out with more than words, but filled with a depth of caring for each

individual. Several residents reach out to give Elizabeth a hug. There are dozens of

lunches leftover, “I always make extra just in case, sometimes grandchildren are

visiting.” Two beautiful little girls and their father follow us as we leave the last building

to take pictures with Captain America; Elizabeth gets a snap with the Captain too before

we say goodbye! He promises to join BetterALife at future events before he departs. At

every home Elizabeth farewells, “We’ll see you next month. Have a blessed day!” As

we take our leave, Elizabeth gives me a big hug, thanking us for coming today. I am

reminded of something one of her principals shared with me: “[Elizabeth] made each

delivery with a big smile. Her joy was just as impactful as the food and financial support

she was providing. Words can't express what I felt each time Elizabeth provided for our

community...like an angel gently caring for our students and their families! I will always

be grateful for her generosity that was offered every time with her smile and hugs!”

You can support BetterALife’s mission to leave no child hungry by making a donation

through their website at betteralife.org or by mailing checks payable to BetterALife Inc.

to

816 Pencoast Dr. Purcellville, VA 20132. Your entire donation to BetterALife is tax

deductable. You can also support BetterALife through your purchases on

AmazonSmile.