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As COVID hit community hard, Longmont nonprofits rallied to reach those most in need of help

They did so while under the strain of more demand and fewer volunteers and under a cloud of uncertainty about the future
Market & Lunch Lines @ OUR Center (2 of 5)
Lunches are distributed at The OUR Center on March 9. A line of cars was waiting to pick up meals through the drive-thru on March 9, 2021.
About this series 

Thursday marked one year since Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order as COVID cases in Colorado surpassed 1,000. Starting today, The Leader is taking a look at the impacts of the pandemic and the adjustments it prompted in organizations including city government, health care, law enforcement, nonprofits and schools.

Wednesday: City’s COVID-related budget, program cuts didn’t strike bone 

Thursday: Resiliency proved greatest medicine for health care workers on frontlines of pandemic 

Today: As COVID hit community hard, Longmont nonprofits rallied to reach those most in need of help | (Español)

Saturday: Petty crimes and changing procedures: Pandemic has had an impact on law enforcement, criminal justice

Sunday: School during the pandemic: The good, the bad, the ugly, and what the future holds

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This week marks one year since Gov. Jared Polis announced the statewide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, delivering one of many blows to the business and nonprofit communities. 

Unemployment rates in Colorado jumped from record lows in February to record highs in April. The shift caused some who had never needed assistance before to for the first time seek help from local nonprofits. The sudden demand for basic necessities such as food and housing and utility bill assistance created an unexpected burden on nonprofits. 

One year later, the demand still exists, however, the community has rallied to support those who need help the most. 

Needs and challenges

Community Food Share, which has been in operation for 40 years, saw “a new era of hunger-relief work unlike anything we’ve experienced” as a result of the pandemic, the nonprofit reported in a March newsletter. 

Community Food Share was founded in 1981 with the mission of creating a “a hunger-free community.” The nonprofit food bank distributes food to over 40 Boulder and Broomfield county nonprofit organizations with similar goals. 

During the pandemic, “local food insecurity increased by an estimated 35% overall; hunger among our community’s kids jumped by an alarming 64%,” the nonprofit states on its website. In response, the food pantry gave out more than 1 million pounds of food — averaging 30,000 meals a day or 900,000 meals a month — since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the March newsletter. 

In Longmont, the OUR Center alone distributed more than 1.1 million pounds of food in 2020, up from 99,403 pounds in 2019, according to the nonprofit’s year-end reports. 

In the early days of the pandemic, food was hard to find, Julia McGee, Community Food Share director of communications, said. Around 90% of the food the pantry receives is donated by grocery stores. When store shelves were barren it didn’t leave much for them to donate, she said. 

Seeing food insecurity increasing, the nonprofit looked to purchase food but ran into challenges with supply; delivery, with delays up four to six times longer; and price, which increased around 25% on some of the most-needed items, McGee said. 

While food demand increased, so did financial demand as unemployment rates began to rise. In April, unemployment rates in Colorado hit a record high of 12.1%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The OUR Center, a Longmont nonprofit dedicated to helping people achieve self-sufficiency, continued to serve the basic needs of the community but reduced its services to focus on food distribution and financial assistance in the form of rent and utility vouchers. 

“At the beginning of this pandemic, we had no idea what to expect. Just like the community, we didn’t know what this meant, we didn’t know how long this was going to last, we didn’t know what role the OUR Center was going to play,” Executive Director Marc Cowell said. 

At the time, everyone was hearing that it would take two weeks to a month to flatten the curve, Cowell said. In a matter of weeks, unemployment rates began to increase, children were being educated from home and “that’s when we truly started to understand what this pandemic was really going to be,” he said. 

The demand for food and financial assistance began almost immediately, Cowell said. 

“I tried to stay one step ahead the whole way, but about two months in I said ‘I’m done trying (to predict what is going to happen),’ you just couldn’t do it,” he said. “Things just kept changing rapidly so we just focused on what we knew the community needed and doing our absolute best to meet those needs.” 

The pandemic drove clients who had never needed to seek help to the OUR Center’s doors. One in four people who utilized the food and financial assistance program during the pandemic were new to the program, Cowell said. 

“ That’s a pretty big number (of) … people who have never been in this position before,” he said.

Some people are just one crisis away from falling over the edge, OUR Center’s Development Director Elaine Klotz said.

Over the last year, the OUR Center saw a 386% increase in direct financial support in the amount of rent and utility vouchers it awarded, which totaled $1.1 million. 

In 2019, the OUR Center offered 349 utility vouchers and 349 rent vouchers, those numbers more than doubled in 2020, when it awarded 896 utility vouchers and 863 rent vouchers, according to the OUR Center’s year-end reports. 

In January and February, the demand continued with the OUR Center giving out 132 rent assistance vouchers and 123 utility vouchers, amounting to $167,282 and $47,195, respectively. 

The pandemic also had a big impact on individuals experiencing homelessness, particularly when public buildings and nonprofit organizations closed in response to public health orders and guidelines. Homeless Outreach Providing Encouragement, or HOPE for Longmont, opened its doors to fill the gaps, HOPE Director of Development Kimberly Braun said. 

“For us, the impact of COVID was huge emotionally. We became this very large safety net that people could fall into and we could help them,” she said. 

It became such a safety net that the nonprofit had to hire a staff member just to answer the door as people sought out non-perishable lunches, clothing and even sleeping bags, Braun said. 

Because of the pandemic, HOPE expanded and offered new services such as a day shelter and SafeLot, a program that allows people who live in their cars a safe place to park. The expanded services allowed HOPE to serve “thousands of people,” Braun said. 

While services were expanded to help more people, the COVID stay-at-home order and the ensuing capacity restrictions for businesses and organizations of all types caused several people enrolled in navigation services at HOPE to lose their jobs. 

Navigation services help people set employment and housing goals, said Alice Sueltenfuss, navigation coordinator for HOPE.

Of 28 clients enrolled in the navigation services program at HOPE, all but two had jobs prior to the pandemic. After the stay-at-home order, only five still had jobs. By June, nine of those people had found a new job, but morale was still low, Sueltenfuss said.

Depression set in “because folks were finally saving money, we had goals set about housing and what that would look like and now those goals were put on hold and there wasn’t a lot to do during the day,” Sueltenfuss said. 

Services cut, shifted

Individuals without support or resources rely on public services and the pandemic caused all organizations to reevaluate what services they could provide based on ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions, Braun said.

This included adding delivery services, hosting distribution events outside, setting up tents and even canceling or suspending services.

To meet the ever-growing food needs of the community, Community Food Share began looking to new avenues to get food to people. It partnered with Boulder Valley School District’s The School Food Project to help families with “several meals worth of food items and fresh produce to families,” the website states. 

The pantry also partnered with Via Mobility — a nonprofit organization that provides clients with transportation and mobility options — to deliver food to individuals who became suddenly homebound due to increased health risk during the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, delivery had been a small part of what Community Food Share did through its Elder Share program. 

Prior to the pandemic the OUR Center provided more services to the community, however, many had to be canceled or suspended. Those programs included parenting and financial classes, and access to the computer lab and the Community Closet, from which people could receive needed clothing items. 

“We took a wide variety of services and narrowed them down to the most basic,” Cowell said. 

The suspension of the programs allowed the OUR Center to focus on the food and financial assistance programs it felt were most needed in the community, Cowell said. Without people being allowed inside, staff turned the building into a place to store donated food items and shifted services to be accessible through walk-up or drive-up access.

The OUR Center also meets with clients to provide them resources on an individual basis. Those appointments had to pivot to being conducted over the phone and video conferencing, Cowell said. 

As the year progressed, the team got creative and found ways to offer some of the services that were closed when the pandemic hit, such as pivoting to offering winter clothing distribution outside the building. 

While the OUR Center has not been able to track how the closure of some services has impacted the community, Cowell said the people the nonprofit  serves are extremely resourceful. 

“One of downfalls to this (the pandemic) is we haven’t been able to reach out and follow up with families to see the impacts,” Cowell said. 

He said he hopes as services return, families will reach out once more.

Beyond the lack of services, Development Director Klotz said the biggest detriment has been the lack of social engagement clients were once able to find at the OUR Center. 

“If you are getting together in a class, if you are doing some parenting support class together, you’re building community, you are just not learning a curriculum, you’re really building a community within that class. You are building a means of support,” she said, adding being in a stressful situation without that sense of community and support weighs heavier on people.

“I think that is going to be the most welcomed thing for our participants, when we can start seeing each other face-to-face and eye-to-eye again,” Klotz said.  

HOPE has added more services to its roster over the year, including three SafeLot programs and day shelters in Longmont. Due to a lack of funding, the day shelter has been reduced to Saturdays only, Sueltenfuss said. 

Volunteer numbers fall 

Each of these organizations depend on volunteers to help them serve the community, and each reported seeing a dramatic decrease in volunteerism when the pandemic hit. Many volunteers in the area fall into the 65 and older category and the pandemic kept them home.

The sudden decrease in volunteers has lasted the longest for HOPE, however, all nonprofits report that volunteers have continued to make efforts to support the work they are doing. 

While volunteerism at HOPE did not survive the same as at the OUR Center or Community Food Share, it was no less blessed, Sueltenfuss said. 

In-person volunteers were still hard to come by at HOPE, however, the community did help by donating clothing and food. 

“It just felt like the community at large just helped out,” Sueltenfuss said. “Volunteers have said they will come back … when the vaccine is more widespread and things can open up safely,” she said.

Community Food Share saw an immediate decrease in volunteer help, which makes up 40% of its labor force. The organization was forced to streamline its operation by changing how it sorted food and had to reduce the number of shifts for volunteers, reducing the number of volunteers at a single time, McGee said. 

“We had a lot of interest, it's just that we couldn’t say yes to everyone. … The community was really showing up, we had hundreds of people on our waitlist who wanted to be called on a moment’s notice to help us,” she said. 

The OUR Center’s Cowell said, “For us to be able to assist the community the way that we have, to the degree we have, would not have happened without the community’s assistance. I think everyone really recognized that this was really affecting the community and the community was hurting and continues to hurt. People who have means wanted to help and looked to us, which for me, gives me a sense of pride … that they trusted us.”

Looking beyond the pandemic

Although vaccines are rolling out to the community and the economy is expected to rebound, it may take years for some people to get back on their feet, Cowell said. Some “have built up their debt so high to pay their bills that it is going to take them a long time to dig out from under that debt,” he said. 

According to a consumer debt survey conducted this month by WalletHub, 145 million Americans reported not being able to afford another year like 2020, and money problems are now the top stressor beating out concerns about the virus. The survey also found  71 million people in America anticipate not being able to pay their credit card debt.   

The OUR Center will continue to work with families to get them back on their feet long after the pandemic ends, Cowell said, adding he hopes those who donated during the pandemic will continue to remember community members who may take longer to recover. 

Moving into the future, the OUR Center plans to continue to embrace technology to provide some of its services. Additionally, it plans to continue to provide drive-up services, allowing busy participants quicker access to food and other needs. 

“We will provide services in more modalities than we did before to reduce barriers,” Cowell said. 

Community Food Share plans to continue identifying barriers to food access in the community and look for solutions to break through those barriers. Some of the programs it hopes to keep are food delivery to homebound clients and pop-up and mobile pantries

Much of what HOPE was able to accomplish over the past year was thanks to grants and community donations, however, the future of some programs is uncertain. 

“Will the funding be there next year? We just don’t know. Those are the risks that we take, we continue to show up in service, helping people and we don’t even have the certainty of the funding that will keep us helping people,” Braun said. 



Learn more, help out

To learn more or donate to these  nonprofits organizations click on the links below:

Community Food Share

OUR Center

HOPE for Longmont



 


Macie May

About the Author: Macie May

I moved to Longmont from Oklahoma in 2014 with my two boys. It didn't take long for Longmont to become my home. I enjoy getting to know the people here and being part of such a vibrant and innovative community.
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