Alum and YMCA executive helps distribute more than 3M meals to families in need during the COVID-19 pandemic

Northeastern alum Wendy Zinn is the senior vice president of the YMCA of Greater Boston on Huntington Avenue. The YMCA’s grab-and-go meal program has served more than three million meals to families during the pandemic. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

When Wendy Zinn was a student at Northeastern, she worked at the YMCA of Greater Boston on Huntington Avenue for all three of her co-ops. A student of recreational management, Zinn worked with Y branches across the city to organize the layout and distribution of direct mailers and newspaper tabloids that advertised swim classes and membership information.

“You have to remember: This was the late ’80s; there was barely internet. Everything we did was newspaper tabloids,” she said.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1990, Zinn was offered a job at the Y as associate director of communications, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

“I never had another job,” she said. “Fast-forward 30 years later, and here I am.”

Now the senior vice president for partnerships and responsibility at the YMCA of Greater Boston, Zinn has led the charge to feed families during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and her team at the Y converted the organization’s well-established network into an emergency meal distribution machine, bringing essential resources to families who badly need it.

Since March, the YMCA has distributed more than 3 million meals to families all across the city, Zinn said.

The figure is staggering, but Zinn has been helping Boston families since her very first days at the YMCA.

In the late 1990s, she noticed that there were more than 600 children on a waiting list for childcare in East Boston. At the time, the closest branch was across the city at the Huntington Avenue center, right next to Northeastern’s Boston campus and the de facto headquarters of the organization’s operations.

It was too far, and too full. Instead, Zinn—who had recently earned her master’s degree from Springfield College—saw an opportunity to open a new branch right where the need was.

“So I went to East Boston for six years, and at the end of that time, we had a brand new YMCA built,” she said.

Zinn’s no-nonsense sensibility made the task sound easy, but in reality it required a delicate balance of community outreach, fundraising, and finding partners in the area. In short order, though, Zinn had accomplished all three, found an available space for dedicated preschool and toddler programming, and opened up afterschool programs at surrounding elementary schools. Within a few years, the East Boston branch was serving more than 600 children.

“I’ve spent my whole career figuring out how to do things, then doing them,” Zinn said.

Wendy Zinn graduated from Northeastern in 1990 with a bachelor's degree in recreational management. She worked at the YMCA of Greater Boston for all three of her co-ops, and was hired full-time upon graduation. The rest, as they say, is history. Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

So when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down many of Boston’s key service centers, Zinn sprang into action.

Even before the pandemic, the YMCA had run a robust summer meals program for city students. Then came March 2020, when nationwide lockdowns and historic unemployment made getting basic necessities even more challenging. Undaunted, Zinn leaned on the network of organizations and partnerships she’d been building since her East Boston days.

She teamed up with the Greater Boston Food Bank and opened pop-up food pantries at YMCA branches in East Boston, Roxbury, Dorchester, and Huntington Avenue. When the entire city shut down, the need for food only went up.

Zinn turned the Huntington Avenue branch into a food distribution supercenter. The YMCA teamed up with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to deliver groceries to households that were homebound, and police cadets pitched in to deliver food, as well.

Partners at the Boston Housing Authority started distributing meals at nine of its buildings throughout the city, and another vendor joined on to curate culturally competent meals, Zinn said.

In October, the entire operation moved to a much bigger warehouse on Melnea Cass Boulevard, but the four branches doing in-person food distribution still did a swift service, handing out as many as 5,000 bags of food per week, Zinn said.   

“I’ve been here for so long, and touched so many aspects of this organization, that when I saw there was a need I just knew we had the network to meet it,” she said.

Still, she’s always thinking about what comes next. On her drive into work from her home in East Boston, Zinn has time to consider the positive impact the YMCA has had on her life and on the lives of so many others.

“But the need is still so great,” she said. “I’m always just trying to think about what else we can do.”

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