response: September/October 2020 Issue

Essential in Uncertainty

United Methodist Women-supported national mission institutions adapt quickly and creatively to meet community needs during the global health crisis.

Essential in Uncertainty
Stacey Outwater at the Tobacco Free Camp sponsored by the Nome Community Center, a United Methodist Women national mission institution.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million worldwide and 675,000 in the United States. Modern science, mass communication and medical technology will hopefully keep that horrific death rate from repeating itself in our current global health crisis—but that doesn’t mean the coronavirus toll hasn’t been devastating.

As of early July, it has killed more than 539,906 people globally, including 129,963 Americans, and hospitalized tens of thousands more. To slow the spread, the U.S. economy was temporarily shut down—and it is still struggling to recover. And with isolation and distancing the best defense against COVID-19, the lack of human contact has had a hefty emotional impact.

Restrictions and government-mandated guidelines have been particularly difficult on nonprofits and ministries, which sometimes struggle financially even in robust times.

It’s no different for the nearly 90 national mission institutions supported in partnership with United Methodist Women. 

United Methodist Women’s predecessor organizations established social service programs across the United States at the turn of the 20th century in response to the needs of marginalized and vulnerable communities—newly arrived immigrants, freed Blacks, the working poor and indigenous peoples.

Today, many of these programs operate throughout the country as independent, autonomous nonprofit agencies, with missions ranging from caring for children and educating youth, creating economic opportunities, empowering women, housing the neglected and advocating for social justice.

United Methodist Women’s commitment to these programs remains strong. Agencies have access to annual grants, emergency funding, technical support and member involvement. In 2019, the national office gave nearly $1.9 million in grant support to national mission institutions. Some of the national mission institutions will be receiving additional grants to help manage the shortfalls caused by COVID-19, says Jessica Tulloch, United Methodist Women’s executive for national ministries. 

“I know these are unusual times, but these are agencies that are often called on to adapt and adjust as the needs of the community change,” she said. “It’s in their DNA. Most of them started with few resources, but with plenty of passion and the drive to serve. That will get them through this.” 

How did these nonprofits cope? response talks with four directors of national mission institutions on how they responded and adapted. 

And though they all have their own challenges, they share a common trait, Tulloch said. “They are quick to respond and can make adjustments quickly. We’ve seen that throughout history. When they come out of this, they will be that much stronger.”

Nome Community Center

Life can be challenging enough in Nome, Alaska. Weather, poverty, the high rate of homelessness and alcoholism, and isolation are everyday struggles. Add a pandemic to the mix, and Rhonda Schneider had yet another obstacle to overcome. She’s the director of the Nome Community Center, the area’s main social-service agency. Its roots are uniquely Alaskan: It began in 1906 when a benefactor gave a donation to the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church to establish a reindeer mission at the Sinuk River to preserve and protect the tradition of reindeer herding.

The center now has a more expansive role, providing a daytime program for seniors, family services, Boys and Girls Club activities, a youth court diversionary program, feeding outreach, an overnight shelter and a housing program to keep people out of homelessness.

Schneider does this all with a $2 million annual budget.

Her offices are located in donated space on the second floor of Community United Methodist Church. Several of her programs also work out of Methodist-owned buildings at no charge except for maintenance costs. 

“When you have to do so much on a limited budget, any help means so much,” she said. 

When COVID-19 hit, her staff of 35 could not close up shop. 

“There was no ‘stay home and stay safe’ order for us,” Schneider said. Only three programs were put on hold—youth court, the Alcohol Safety Action program and the Boys and Girls Club. The rest were modified to follow local guidelines.

Senior meals, for example, went from being served in a community setting to at-home deliveries. Staff devised “distant bingo” games, a lending library of disinfected puzzles and a weekly regime of exercise handouts to do at home. 

Children living in the children’s home had to be homeschooled by an already overburdened staff. And the homeless shelter remained open an extra month because of the pandemic and relocated to a gym in a city-owned recreation center to accommodate the spike in numbers.

With this population, Schneider said, “social distancing was practically nonexistent.”

“They rely on one another, they huddle with one another and they roam together,” she said. “Asking them to limit contact with each other was not very feasible.”

Because it operates a “wet” shelter, which allows inebriated guests, moving to a temporary shelter was stressful because it was so far from the local bars. Some staff members sought out the regulars and brought them to the new location so they would have shelter and a meal. 

A bright spot amid the coronavirus chaos was that some guests stayed sober for about a week.

“That was an amazing surprise,” Schneider said. “It was very nice while it lasted.”

Most of the Nome Community Center’s work is face-to-face, and Schneider is looking forward to returning to that. There were few COVID-19 cases in Alaska—only three recorded in Nome by late May. That is one of the upsides of limited contact with large population centers.

Schneider says she will not forget the response by her staff and the commitment made to keep clients safe during such an uncertain time.

“It’s work that touches your soul,” she said. “You do this because you have a heart for helping people. And I saw a lot of people going the extra mile to get that done.”

Hattie B. Cooper Community Center

As executive director of Hattie B. Cooper Community Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Lillie Searcy knows how to juggle resources, manage staff and prepare for the unexpected.

But COVID-19 stretched even her limits.

“I’ve never been more nervous and scared about anything in my life,” Searcy said.

“The responsibility to the kids and families we serve to keep our staff safe in an environment with so much uncertainty was overwhelming.” 

The first order of business was to shut down the center, because it was not considered an essential business. Nearly all of the 100 or so kids who attend the programs, from infants to young children, are subsidized, so those payments kept coming. But Searcy had to funnel all the funding into paying routine expenses on the building and restructuring the center so it would meet the strict public-health guidelines set by the state for the future reopen date. 

In the beginning, she wanted to continue providing meals to the kids, but with all the restrictions in place and her limited staff, she could not manage it. Instead, she got the word out to all the families directing them to local feeding centers. Many of the parents from the center’s underserved neighborhood were laid off and in dire financial circumstances.

One way she could offer assistance was to provide funding to parents to promote children’s learning at home, from books, markers, pencils, art supplies and educational toys to financial assistance for food and diapers.

She never thought much about the importance of disinfectant wipes.

“I will never take them for granted again,” she said. ”

She managed to keep most of her 24-person staff by getting federal funding through the payroll protection program. But as the weeks went on, Searcy realized she had another challenge ahead of her: convincing the teachers and other workers that it was safe to return.

“I’m 65 and I get it. I’m at a vulnerable age and can’t take any chances,” she said. “I feel like I’m treading on ice. I don’t want to push people back to work if they’re uncomfortable. It’s something they have to decide for themselves.”

With an annual budget of $1.2 million, Searcy doesn’t have much wiggle room when it comes to funding. Keeping the website current and planning fundraising activities for the fall were no longer options. Instead, she had to turn her attention to tracking down hard-to-get personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, hand sanitizer and plastic shields. Her space requirement went from 35 square feet per child to 144 square feet, which means enrollment will be slashed for the time being.

“We do a lot of waiting on the state for answers it really doesn’t have. Everything changes from day to day,” she said. 

One-third of the center’s board is made up of members of New England United Methodist churches. Before, she gave them a wish list for items like baby wipes; now, she is hoping congregants will donate as many face masks as possible.

“I think we’ll be living with these changes for some time to come,” Searcy said. “But parents depend on this center. We have no choice but to adapt and make this work.”

Cornerstones of Care

Denise Cross knew things were different this time.

“We’ve been through floods and tornadoes. We had a plan for those,” said Cross, chief executive of Cornerstones of Care, which serves some 10,000 children and families annually in Missouri and Kansas. “But this required a different response altogether.” 

Cross knew that the nonprofit needed to stay steady and focused for both its staff and clients as it made the necessary transitions to follow community and state mandates. Among its responsibilities are education, mental and behavioral health, foster care and adoption, and family support.

“Our main objective was consistency, even if we had no idea from one day to the next about this virus,” she said. “These kids weren’t going away; their needs weren’t going away.” That included about 100 youth living on two campuses.

She acknowledges that the first 10 days felt chaotic.

Adoptions and other court matters were suddenly virtual or postponed. Schools were closed, and now the program was responsible for overseeing the distance learning for its residential charges. The in-person family support and case management had to pivot to technology like videoconferencing. Drive-by visits with properly distanced conversations became the norm.

Most employees began working remotely, and others still had to do home visits. The nonprofit had to scramble to find the necessary protective equipment.

Cross is grateful that none of her 750 team members had to be laid off. Their work with kids in the foster-care system and residential programs was deemed essential. With the youth living on the campuses and not leaving for school, Cornerstones of Care had to increase its supply of food and cleaning products. Team members used their connections to keep the children fed and the facilities disinfected. 

“The attitude always was, ‘We can figure this out.’ And they did this while figuring out how to handle their own family situations at home,” Cross said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of our team.”

Cross was particularly concerned about the impact the pandemic’s uncertainty would have on the youth’s mental health. 

Even in the best of times, she said, it’s a challenge to give them a sense of normalcy and stability. But again, her team members stepped up and did just that.

“We had to follow all the best practices, from face masks to temperature checks. The key was not to lose those personal relationships we had established, with either the kids or the families,” she said. “We just made the necessary adjustments so we could keep going.”

Cornerstones of Care, with its $52 million annual budget, has a strong partnership with the community through both funding and volunteers. United Methodist Women and some 34 churches have provided assistance. When the agency put out a call for face masks, two local United Methodist congregations got busy sewing hundreds for the team members.

One of the main lessons learned is that there will be less an appetite for in-office meetings and more emphasis on encouraging people to work remotely. Cutting down car travel frees up workers to devote additional time to the clients, something that will be utilized more often in the future.

And the value of teamwork was made even more clear through the COVID-19 crisis.

“You can’t get through something like this alone,” Cross said. “It was all hands on deck. That made the difference for us.”

Red Bird Mission

Hundreds of lives depend on Red Bird Mission in Beverly, Kentucky. For starters, it’s the largest employer in a 35-mile radius in the southeastern part of the state, tucked into a remote corner of Clay County at the intersection of Bell and Leslie counties.

Nearly 100 people are employed by the agency, which provides a wide range of services in the impoverished region, including child development, community aid ministries, elderly and family services, women and children’s ministries, economic opportunities, and community housing improvement.

Next year, Red Bird celebrates its 100th anniversary. 

“People count on us,” said Executive Director Kari Collins. “We need to be there for them, because we’re in an area where the opportunities are so limited.”

About 40 percent of the population is at the national poverty rate or lower, and unemployment is always higher than the national average. Collins estimated that about 10 to 20 percent of the residents have just given up looking for work. Drug addiction is also at higher-than-average levels.

When state and local officials began ordering shutdowns due to COVID-19, the demand for Red Bird Mission began to skyrocket. The number of clients who used the emergency food pantry and dispensary for baby items nearly doubled.

The pandemic forced the temporary closure of the community store, which stocks donated clothing, furniture and household items. And though the dental clinic stopped performing nonessential dental care, a teledentistry service was launched.

Meals on Wheels became even more vital, with the local senior center temporarily closed. Seniors who ate their main meal at the center were added to the home-delivery program. Teachers at the Red Bird School started online learning, but some of their students had no access to the internet. They had to prepare packets of homework assignments to be picked up or delivered to homes.

“It was a challenge beyond words,” Collins said. “But we knew we weren’t alone, because this was happening all over the country. It’s just that we’re sitting in a part of the world that’s so isolated, so poor and with a lack of transportation.”

She said the longstanding partnership with United Methodist Women played a critical role in being able to keep up with the additional demands, which stretched the nonprofit’s $4.6 million annual budget. Aside from the annual national mission institution grant, United Methodist Women also donated an emergency grant of $40,000 to cover unexpected expenses due to the pandemic.

“United Methodist Women has always paid close attention to the special needs of this community and has always responded to our requests for assistance,” Collins said. “They founded us, and they have kept us going. They are truly the hands and feet of this mission.”

In the beginning, when some programs had to be put on hold, Collins was faced with having to lay off some of her staff. But the emergency funding from United Methodist Women, along with a payroll protection assistance from the federal government, allowed her to maintain most of her work force. To keep staff safe, the mission now has a 14-step “Health at Work” plan that includes staggered times in the office, daily sanitizing of workstations and temperature checks.

One of the mission’s most crucial programs is Work Camp. The program draws about 2,400 volunteers from churches, schools or service organizations for short- or long-term mission trips for projects such as housing repairs and building accessibility ramps for elderly and low-income families. 

 Because the people stay in cabins, paying the mission room and board, the camp had to be delayed about a month so that a health and safety plan could be put in place. Many volunteers whose trips were canceled sent a donation instead, which was directed to hire local people to tackle the jobs they would have done on the mission. 

Collins anticipates a “new normal” regarding health guidelines going forward. She also worries about a drop in charitable giving, which Red Bird Mission depends on to survive.

“It’s easy to get discouraged,” Collins said. “But all the acts of kindness we’ve witnessed these past few months restore my faith in humanity. At the heart of it, people really do care for one another and take care of one another, especially in the worst of times.” 

Michelle Bearden is a former religion reporter and freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida.

Posted or updated: 9/2/2020 12:00:00 AM