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Here's how local nonprofits are responding and adjusting to the COVID-19 outbreak
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Cars wrap around Midway United Methodist Church as volunteers with Meals by Grace line up to pick up food to deliver to those in need. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

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The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it loss of jobs, students and employees finding ways to work from home and economic anxieties in general as everyone waits to see what comes next.

Times of crisis are when Forsyth County’s nonprofit organizations usually step up, but the pandemic has changed everything from how they handle their duties, have volunteers help out and how they pay for it all.

“Every nonprofit out there, every business, every family should have a budget, here’s how much money we’re going to need to do business as usual,” said Suellen Daniels, who founded Meals by Grace, an organization that delivers meals at no cost to clients and focuses on families with school-aged children, with her husband, Steven. 

“But this isn’t business as usual. There’s increased needs from people, there’s increased meals per family. The additional cost is running over $34,000 per week.”

Daniels said she understands what many are facing. A decade ago, her family was hit hard during the Great Recession, which, once they had recovered financially, led them to begin their nonprofit.

“We were the ones out there struggling for part-time jobs and just trying to keep our head above water,” she said. “When we lost everything, it took us three years to be stable again, so I think it is pie in the sky almost to think our families are going to recover in a couple of months.”

Getting used to it

As the local community began to take the coronavirus seriously, local nonprofits were among some of the first to adapt. Like other organizations, they have had to figure out new ways to do their jobs. 

Jacob Granados, director of purposeful engagement at The Place of Forsyth County, said they had been impacted and not only seen an increase in needs, such as the food program, but one of their biggest fundraisers, their thrift store at 2550 The Place Circle, has been closed for weeks.

“We could keep it open, but we’re not essential, and it’s not very wise to bring people in and spread the virus more with our staff or other customers, so we let go of that, and that is a major revenue source for us,” Granados said. “By the end of April, we will have lost about $90,000 in revenue that we had budgeted ... As we go through the end of May, we’re over $100,000.”

Working with both volunteers and those they serve when also trying to follow social distancing guidelines has meant some other adjustments have had to be made.

Tina Huck, executive director of Family Promise of Forsyth County, an organization that helps families dealing with homelessness, said the group typically uses 14 different churches who give the families a place to stay, but Family Promise had to make changes to help limit the spread of the disease.

“That was impacted as the churches started to close, and we had concerns, obviously of safety for everybody,” Huck said. “We’re fortunate though that we have a friend of our organization who had a house that’s allowing us to have our families stay in that one house, and it’s large enough for the families to have their own rooms, own bathrooms and that type of thing.”

Doing their jobs

The Place and Meals by Grace both have programs to provide meals for those facing economic struggles in the community, but with an increasing number of people out of work and facing uncertainty, the organizations have refined how they get food to the community.

“We’re pre-preparing the families meals and their bags, and then as they come up, we’re shopping for them and picking their frozen meat and their dairy and produce and items then taking it for them to the door or the car so there’s no mingling there, keeping the team size small,” Daniels said.

Granados said The Place typically has about 40-60 new households come to their pantry each month.

Since March 16, they have taken on 304 new families, with 357 of those never receiving any type of assistance previously and 37 that had received some help but not from the pantry, and The Place has given more than $19,000 in financial assistance for nearly 90 calls related to COVID-19.

With limited supplies at grocery stores, Daniels said Meals by Grace and other food banks typically receive some food from federal sources, some from donations and others from businesses, but with companies facing their own supply issues and fewer people gathering for donations, there have been shortages.

Daniels said in the last five weeks, Meals by Grace had served more than 32,000 meals to 1,407 families, including 2,543 kids. While normally providing 11 meals for families — dinner each weeknight and all three meals on the weekends — the group is now providing 21, all three meals for every day of the week.

“Add to it an increase in just a sheer number of children and families needing food, then add to it an increased 10 meals per week, it was a double whammy,” she said. “Not only did the numbers go up, but the numbers of meals required [went up.]”

For the first few weeks of the outbreak, the organization was able to get salvage food from restaurants, which have since become more rare as supply chains have adjusted.

“That was wonderful for us, so we had quite a bit during those first couple of weeks, but that is a temporary situation,” Daniels said. “It didn’t take very long for, ‘There is no more ordering, therefore there is nothing shipping, therefore there is nothing in limbo that’s not going to be received on the other end,’ so the last two weeks have been difficult to get food. Supply and demand are still grossly out of balance.”

She said the group is still looking into all avenues to get meals, including buying food from stores at retail prices, a significant cost for nonprofits.

Adapting to technology

With students and more employees working from home in recent weeks, it seems everyone has gotten a crash course in using services like Skype and Zoom to hold meetings and classes via teleconference, and nonprofits have had to make similar adjustments.

“Our volunteers have become really adept at using technology,” said Paula Malmfeldt, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, of Forsyth County. “They are FaceTiming and they are doing Zoom calls and they’re making phone calls and they are communicating with their kids and anyone in those kids’ lives by phone and other virtual means. So while they’re not able to see the kids face-to-face, those contacts still happen.”

Malmfeldt applauded the volunteers, even those who she said were older and might struggle a bit more with new technology and said event court hearings were now being done through video conferences. 

Huck said Family Promise is also trying to stay connected with previous clients who have graduated out of the program through video conferences.

“We, on a weekly basis, also are meeting with our graduates online via Zoom calls, just to make sure that they’re doing OK, help them with any needs that they might have, as well as having some classes and things like that,” she said. “In the next couple of weeks, we’re going to start some other groups up for people who are just struggling a little bit and maybe need support.”

New responsibilities and looking ahead

Perhaps the toughest part of preparing for what challenges nonprofits will face in the coming months is that no one is sure when life will go back to anything considered normal.

Huck said Family Promise hasn’t seen an influx of new families but she worried how long that would be the case. 

“We’re not seeing that impact yet because people are getting things like unemployment [benefits], stimulus checks, all of those kind of things,” she said. “What we’re concerned about is here in a couple of months, a few weeks down the road when all that money is gone or when the courts reopen for evictions, things like that, so we’re staying prepped and ready. There may be more need for us at that time.”

Malmfeldt said there also had not been an increase in the number of kids going into foster care, but with the stress that families are going through right now and since they can’t meet with kids face-to-face, volunteer’s roles are as important as ever.

She said Tom Rawlings, director of the state Division of Family and Children Services, had stressed the importance of those volunteers on a recent conference call.

“We’re worried that children and families are really feeling the brunt of all the challenges,” Malmfeldt said. “So, he said more than ever, CASA needs to be DFCS’s eyes and ears. We need to be able to see these kids and report to DFCS some of the things that we see. He recognizes that there will be a surge, probably when kids get back into school. That might not be until August now.”

Social distancing has meant CASA had to cancel a spring class to train new advocates, but Malmfeldt said she received a grant from the group’s national headquarters to buy a Zoom license, which they will use for future classes and other uses.

“There’s all types of training right now on how to hold virtual trainings and get together with volunteers,” she said. “Our team is using that time to really learn how to use that, so regardless of where we are in August, we will be ready to hold that class.”

Volunteer response

For all the negatives impacting Forsyth County’s nonprofit community, all the officials said they were moved by how their volunteers and supporters had responded in the time of need, sometimes offering more help than was even needed.

“We’re not in as great of a need right now for volunteers as we normally are, simply because normally, they’re staffing those churches all the time,” Huck said. “So the volunteers have been great about assisting as they can, but we have a lot of volunteers that are in the high-risk categories, so they’re not able to come.”

Granados said The Place has also seen an influx in those who want to volunteer but can’t take everybody.

“We could have lots of people here,” he said. “So many people have reached out wanting to get involved in that way, but simply can’t for safety reasons and trying to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

For Meals by Grace, Daniels said they wouldn’t be able to respond the way they have if not for officials at Midway United Methodist Church allowing the group to use their facilities as needed.

The church is normally where the organization packs meals and stages home deliveries on Sundays and most volunteers can just walk up and work in various roles. That isn’t the case right now.

“We’re very restrictive,” Daniels said. “You can either deliver to families in need or you can volunteer to work on a [packing] team, but you can’t do both.”

To maintain safety, packing teams are kept in small groups and only allowed to go into certain rooms and those on deliveries don’t interact with the packers when picking up the food and drop it off at the doors of the recipients.

Daniels said Meals by Grace has also had to raise the minimum age of volunteers to 16, and with local schools and colleges moving to online learning, she said there was a need “to use those young muscles.”

At a time when many families are stuck inside and spending more time than normal, Daniels said some parents had begun alternating who would be going to volunteer each week to get a little bit of time out of the home.

“It’s worked out beautifully,” Daniels said. “We get the teens away from the parents for a few hours, the parents away from the kids for a few hours, and yet, we keep everybody spread out all over campus in order to be able to do that.”