response September/October 2020 Issue

Responding to Change

Bidwell Riverside Center adapts to serve its community during a global health crisis.

Responding to Change
Volunteers at Bidwell Riverside Center's food pantry in Des Moines, Iowa.

When the coronavirus came to Des Moines, there was no shutting down at Bidwell Riverside Center, central Iowa’s largest serving food pantry and thrift store, or at its child development center.

“People still have to eat,” said Executive Director Tim Shanahan. “And for those essential workers who still had to report to their jobs, they needed child care.”

It was the same for its partner, Hawthorn Hill, which oversees a supportive housing program for financially struggling families and an emergency shelter for eight families.

The question facing Shanahan and his staff of nearly 40 was urgent and direct: What do we need to do to stay compliant and stay open?

“We really couldn’t skip a beat,” he said. “We went to work getting the most information we could and how we could transition.”

The housing programs could function with minimal change. A significant difference was that staff did most of its communication with the families by phone. It was not ideal, but it eliminated the threat of spreading infection. The most challenging was the childcare center, which serves children ages 2 to 5. Most of the toys had to be put away to prevent too many hands touching them; everything else in the play area had to be constantly disinfected. Initially, the workers tried to get the children to wear a face mask. That didn’t work.

Parents had to drop children off at the door. Every child’s temperature was taken before entry. When one parent tested positive for the virus, the child had to stay home in quarantine for 14 days.

Quieter These Days

It’s quieter at the center these days. Some 60 kids were enrolled in the facility; that number is down to about 20 as of June. To give parents peace of mind, Shanahan said they just purchased “air scrubbers” to keep the germ-prone facility clean.

About 4,000 clients use the pantry every month. Instead of clients shopping, staff now puts together a box of food based on the number of people in the household and delivers it to the parking lot. Staff also temporarily suspended the intake process, which collected data from the clients, such as their housing and income status.

As Iowa reopens, Shanahan anticipates many of the temporary measures will become permanent at the agency, which has a $1.8 million annual budget for both programs. But a faltering economy could impact community support to their programs. That’s why he’s grateful for the national mission institution status with United Methodist Women and the statewide funding from United Methodist Women in Iowa. United Methodist Women members also play a pivotal role in volunteer assistance.

“When you’re in social services, you have to learn to be fluid, and be able to adjust to the times,” he said. “I just never expected how fluid we would have to be in 2020.

Read more national mission institution profiles in the upcoming September/October issue of response magazine. Subscribe today!


Michelle Bearden is former religion reporter for The Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV and is now a freelance writer specializing in faith and values in Tampa, Florida.

Posted or updated: 8/21/2020 12:00:00 AM