Thanks in the Midst of Trial

Nonprofits have been on the front lines of the response to the COVID crisis from the very beginning, at the same time, being one of the hardest hit sectors. Part of the first responders protecting and supporting our communities and the most vulnerable among us, they’ve acted with courage, creativity, resilience and resolve to continue to serve, and in many cases, found reason for optimism. During this time of thanksgiving, we thank nonprofits moving diligently forward and to the many donors lifting them up in these difficult days.
“People have really responded to the need – even those that don’t have a lot to give – and that has given us hope,” says Jocelyn Fundoukos, Communications Manager at Operation Food Search (OFS). In the first half of the year, the country indeed witnessed historic levels of generosity from individuals that significantly increased their giving, and St. Louis – consistently named one of the most charitable cities – remained firmly near the top.

Whether these giving levels will be sustained in the second half remains to be seen. In the meantime, nonprofits continue to wage war against a virus that rages on. As the largest distributor of free food in the St. Louis bi-state, Fonduoukos and her colleagues at OFS have not only worked overtime to feed more families – setting up drive-thru distributions and getting greater volumes of food to partner agencies – but also to educate the community about how fragile food security is for many of our neighbors. During the pandemic, there has been about a 40% increase in food insecurity rates, which includes people that have never before been touched by hunger, says Fonduokos, adding that child hunger in America has increased from one in six pre COVID to now one in four. “It’s devastating,” she says. “But if there’s one positive that’s come from this, it’s a greater awareness of how close to hunger so much of our population is.”

Fonduokos is not alone in her observation that increased awareness and empathy have been a natural byproduct of the crisis. “I think people better understand that homelessness is real and can happen to anyone,” says David Weber, Executive Director of Room at the Inn, a temporary, emergency shelter program for homeless women and families in the St. Louis region. “COVID-19 has shown us how tenuous our security can be and how one crisis can become a disaster.”

When families are struggling, they also are forced to make tough choices. During the crisis, Aimee Dearsley, Director of Development for Stray Rescue of St. Louis, says the shelter has seen more abandoned animals. “These are cases of good-intentioned, loving owners having to decide between feeding their pet and giving them up,” she says.

Even the inconveniences are put in larger perspective. While the struggle to conduct business or maintain relationships with poor phone or internet connections and behind face masks has been frustrating for many of us, it’s pretty much what the hearing and speech impaired experience every day, says Julie Erickson, Executive Director of the Center for Hearing and Speech. “Isolation and loneliness are feelings they know all too well, and this has given people a sense of what life is like for them.”

Throughout these uncertain times, nonprofits have drawn lessons in strength and resilience from those they serve. “Our kids show incredible determination, and if we learn anything from them, it’s that there is always a way,” says Raymond Castile, Marketing Director of United Services for Children, which provides therapy and early intervention services for developmentally disabled or delayed children. Due to COVID, the United Services building remained closed to children and families from March through July, but learning and therapy continued as the agency temporarily moved services online. Teachers gave families daily activities that children could do at home, posting videos and keeping contact in a private Facebook group. “In this way, children were able to see their teachers and classmates on a regular basis, maintaining a sense of community and stability during a difficult time of social isolation,” says Castile.

Likewise, Erickson says the Center for Hearing and Speech has been able to continue essential services remotely. “In a week’s time mid March, we had converted all speech-language therapy sessions to teletherapy, thanks to technologies we already had in place,” she says. Additionally, the Center has kept locations open with the option of curbside service and has provided tablets to some audiology clients for remote hearing aid repairs and consultations.

While not as easy a pivot, Weber says that Room at the Inn was able to adapt its day facility and reorganize staff to stay open 24/7 when its night site partners – church congregations from across the area that provide an evening meal and safe place for homeless clients to sleep at night – closed due to COVID. “It’s been a strain, but our partners have continued to support us financially, and we’ve been able to place several families in permanent housing during this time.”

Some adjustments are likely to stick. Dearsley says the pandemic accelerated the opening of a Pet Food Pantry at Stray Rescue, which provides bags of pet food for anyone who is in need, a service they have long desired to offer. The shelter also provides delivery of pet food to quarantined individuals unable to pick up the food themselves.

For Christian Family Services, a child placing and counseling agency, the shift to virtual counseling sessions has been an unexpected blessing. “We have seen needs increase across the board, from pregnancy and parenting support services to counseling for many people struggling emotionally,” says Executive Director Steve Awtrey. “While face-to-face has always been our preferred method, with virtual, time or distance barriers no longer get in the way and we have actually been able to do more therapy sessions. It’s been one really positive change that we plan to continue to offer post-pandemic.”

“I expect we will be dealing with this crisis and its repercussions for awhile,” says Sue Nahmensen, CEO of Lutheran Elementary School Association, which has experienced an influx of enrollment inquiries and financial assistance applications in its member schools. “But I’m so thankful to our donors and community partners for rallying around us during these difficult times and proud that we have been able to keep our commitment to the St. Louis community.”

If you would like to donate or have any questions about these organizations, please contact Allison McDonald.