Chanel Taylor, founder of the Detroit Benevolent Society, has helped provide more than 700,000 meals to families and senior citizens in need during the pandemic
By Andy Reid
Featured photography by Hayden Stinebaugh
True leaders are not necessarily those in charge — they are the ones who take charge when no one else will. Chanel Taylor is one of those people.
Back in March, Taylor, a law school student at University of Detroit Mercy, and her best friend, Kayla Kennard, saw COVID-19 creeping into the United States. As it became clear that senior citizens needed to stay home to keep themselves out of danger, Taylor and Kennard identified a problem: How were people who couldn’t leave their houses going to stock up on food?
For many elderly Detroiters, ordering groceries online wasn’t a possibility. And many grocery delivery apps did not accept EBT, an electronic service for food stamp distribution. Some people did not have family who could drop off supplies. Initially, Taylor and Kennard wanted to set up a system where they could help older at-risk people purchase their own groceries and have them delivered.
Within the first day, Taylor realized their plan was not big enough in scope — there were simply too many people who couldn’t afford the food they would need to make it through the pandemic, and the problem reached far past the elderly community Taylor had targeted. In order to truly help people, they would have to find a way to provide free food and supplies. That spark of an idea turned into the Detroit Benevolent Society (DBS); by December, the organization had given out more than 700,000 prepared meals in the city. They have expanded to helping families and children, providing supplies like sanitary items and diapers.
“The need is so great, and it is just humbling to be able to serve,” says Taylor. “So many people have given selflessly to make this happen. That is the most overwhelming part. It was only possible because so many people were willing to give their time and effort to volunteer and donate.”
To launch DBS, Taylor partnered with Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church, the headquarters for the National Action Network’s Michigan chapter. Taylor, a former intern for the civil rights organization, used the church’s connections to team up with large charities, and that’s when the operation exploded. With funding and products provided by national charitable organizations like Forgotten Harvest and World Central Kitchen, DBS went from Taylor’s group of family and friends volunteering to help to a large-scale production team, shipping out almost 50,000 food items a week — everything from sandwiches and fresh fruit to meals prepared by local restaurants.
“[Taylor] is truly one of the most hardworking women I know,” says Kennard, who’s been friends with Taylor since sixth grade. During their time at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills and as undergrads at Wayne State, the pair worked on several community engagement projects, including planning a rally to raise awareness of the Flint water crisis. (Kennard is finishing her master’s degree in public health at St. Louis University in Missouri.) “Whatever she sets her mind to, she’s not only going to do it, but she is going to do it with excellence. Knowing her and seeing her evolve has been such an honor, because she motivates and inspires me to be the best person I can be.”
The pair’s initial goal was to deliver meals for two weeks. But after that time frame passed, says Taylor, “We had so many people who still needed meals. We had to figure out a way to continue and make the program sustainable.” To that end, she’s set up pick-up days and food drives at select locations, including King Solomon Baptist Church, where people can get meals and toiletries. (DBS still delivers meals to seniors in need.) The City of Detroit has gotten onboard, too; it selected DBS for a work-experience program, whereby the city employs people to help the organization give out meals.
Eight months after starting DBS, Taylor — who runs the nonprofit alongside her studies and plans to use her law degree to work in the social justice field — is establishing the organization as a force of good within the community for the foreseeable future. “We want to have a social service arm [and] do continual programming around food insecurity and getting items to people who need them,” she says. “The needs that are present didn’t start because of COVID — they were amplified by it. When COVID ends, those needs will still be there.”