Lifelong Montgomery County resident Grace Rivera-Oven doesn’t just wear many hats. She wears a cape. As executive director of the Upcounty Consolidation Hub, in Germantown, she works hands on to help serve 1,300 families food and other essentials each week. Her interest in food insecurity started during high school, when she began volunteering at soup kitchens. So, when she saw the pandemic affecting her Montgomery County community, she dived right in.
Montgomery Magazine: How did Upcounty Hub come about?
A: This wasn’t on my radar. I don’t think the pandemic was on anybody’s radar. People didn’t have the realization of the severity of this pandemic and that it was going to be a tsunami. On March 25 of that year, I asked my friend Lynn Arndt who is the CEO of BlackRock—she’s been my partner-in-crime in all this—if I could start putting together bags of food in the gallery. I was going to be serving 20-to-25
families in the trailer park. It was me, my sons and some other folks in the community putting together bags
Suddenly, it just snowballed. Within a month we were doing a couple hundred families and then we were getting called from Silver Spring, Wheaton and all over the county of people who were having a really hard time
Q: What was accessibility gap that you noticed at the start of the pandemic and how did you tackle that with your nonprofit?
A: People who had cars could go to those food distributions that we saw at the pandemic, and even the school district was giving out food every day. The problem came for folks who did not have transportation. Like the people at Town Crest apartments, the nearest for them was at Gaithersburg Elementary. That’s literally a three-mile walk and to walk that every day with your kids is not feasible for some of these families.
So I started doing the crazy thing of food delivery door-to-door. And people said to me, “That’s not sustainable. You’re not going to be able to keep that up.” Well, almost two years later, we’re still doing food delivery to families without cars, to the elderly and people who are disabled.
Q: You say your work with Upcounty Hub is very personal to you. How is that?
A: As somebody who is an immigrant and having been raised by a single mom, I’ve been through really hard times. So for me it was important to assure the community, especially those who are single parents, that they are not alone and there were people who cared about them.
Q: How were you able to expand your nonprofit across the county?
A: The county executive visited us, saw the model and asked me to replicate it across the county. So I did. In the fall of 2020, I helped open the other hubs. I’m glad we did because I was driving my poor kids crazy making them go everywhere to deliver food.
Q: What do you consider the most rewarding part of your work, and why?
A: When I see people that we’ve helped come back and become volunteers. There’s one man who we helped bring food to while he was very sick with COVID. Now he’s at the hub every single Wednesday like it’s his job. I also love seeing my young people volunteer. Building people’s empathy toward one another is an important part of this to me.
Q: Where is Upcounty headed? What’s in the future for the program?
A: I’m happy to say that we are on the verge of becoming our own nonprofit. Our new home is the Upcounty Regional Services Center [in Germantown], which is the perfect place for it. BlackRock Center for the Arts will always be our mom and dad.
Q: What’s next for you? Do you see yourself running for any higher positions in local or state government?
A: I’m actually running for the Board of Education. Some might say, “Why be on the board, they aren’t the most-liked people?” But, people often say that I have a knack for bringing people together. So I hope I can use that skill in this position.