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The Pulaski County covid-19 Meals Program hit a milestone Wednesday -- 500,000 meals prepared, packaged and delivered.

Former President Bill Clinton spoke via Zoom to about 40 people Wednesday in the lobby of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

He said congratulations and thank you.

"We've seen so many people working together across all the different lines and sectors," Clinton said. "This meals program proves that we do better when we work together."

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In mid-March, as all of the Pulaski County school buildings were closed because of the pandemic, the Clinton Foundation partnered with World Central Kitchen, the city of Little Rock, and other local organizations to provide healthy meals to students and families affected by the school closures, as well as senior citizens and others in need.

The Clinton Presidential Center's facilities -- normally a presidential library, restaurant and events venue -- are serving as the operational headquarters for the program, which has been distributing about 7,500 meals -- both lunch and dinner -- a day.

"I'm always excited to hear from him, letting us know that someone is thankful for what we do, to let us know that he's appreciative of us," said Karen Johnson, a member of the Meals Program who works for Little Rock's parks department. "I just enjoy what I do knowing it's a service to the community."

Fourteen new AmeriCorps members recently joined the Meals Program support team through a partnership between the Clinton Foundation and Our House with funding provided through the Arkansas Service Commission-EngageAR, which oversees state AmeriCorps funds.

"AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs, made up of three primary programs that each take a different approach to improving lives and fostering civic engagement. Members commit their time to address critical community needs like increasing academic achievement, mentoring youth, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks, preparing for disasters and more," according to nationalservice.gov.

Wednesday's short talk was Clinton's first chance to welcome them.

"We have had hundreds of volunteers since this started, but a lot of them worked for local government and had to go back to their day jobs," he said. "So I am thrilled that we have the AmeriCorps workers here. When we established AmeriCorps back in 1994, this is exactly what I envisioned."

Clinton said AmeriCorps works to meet the needs of the community and provide jobs -- "giving people the chance to earn money or to advance their education and bring the community closer together."

"So all of that is embodied in our meals program," he said. "And I am profoundly grateful to the AmeriCorps members who are going to bring their insights and their hard work to this effort and now join the ranks of more than a million passionate and persistent committed young people, committed to making a difference.

"I really do believe the AmeriCorps model can help us to deal with a lot of the other challenges that we're facing today, rebuilding community trust in law enforcement and community working together. I have seen it over and over and over again," he said.

Clinton said that when he left the office of president, there had been more people in AmeriCorps during its first seven years of existence than there were in the Peace Corps during its 40-year history.

"It showed people want to make a difference in their homes and communities," he said. "We want to go forward together. And Lord knows that's what we've been through in these last few weeks. We had to find a better way to do it and we had to be led by the energetic young who know we cannot continue to do what we have done.

"And that's part of what we're doing here, too. We're knitting the community together. We're holding it together. We're saying, there's got to be a way to do the responsible thing in public health and still keep functioning as a community and keep the economy going. We're doing our part. So I'm proud of you. I'm grateful to you. Have a wonderful day and happy 500,000. Who knows where we'll go from here."

Susie Matheny, another Little Rock parks department employee who has been working with the Meals Program, said after Clinton's address that they're shooting for 1 million meals by the time school starts in the fall.

Other local entities partnering in the program include the Little Rock School District, Pulaski County Special School District, Central Arkansas Library System, the Be Mighty campaign, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, Go Fresh and Arkansas Food Bank.

More than 1,000 people -- staff members and volunteers -- have contributed more than 25,000 hours to the program, according to the Clinton Foundation.

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