Last year, the pandemic opened up a chasm of new needs in the community — needs that local nonprofits could not fill. Not alone, anyway.
"So much of the standard operating book had to be thrown out of the window," says Abby Garrison, vice president of Venture Forward at United Way of Greater Chattanooga.
Chatter's August 2020 "Philanthropy Issue" detailed the early work of the COVID-19 task force, a newly formed partnership spearheaded by United Way comprising nonprofits, businesses and government organizations.
The goal of the task force was to brainstorm solutions to the new needs of the community. And for months, each morning, they met via Zoom — growing in size from a dozen partners to over 100.
"We broke down barriers and worked together in ways we might have not done before," Garrison says. "We managed to build an infrastructure to tackle community problems across sectors."
When I spoke to her for that 2020 story, the task force had identified four big issues born of the pandemic: food security, digital equity, elder care and Latino outreach.
Since then, it has identified nine more, totaling 13 big needs.
Over the following months, the task force divided into sub-committees, each focusing on a different need.
Now, as the dust settles, we can more clearly see the accomplishments of last year, plus the progress still being made.
"We want to keep the momentum going and make sure we don't lose that spark," Garrison says.
Here, we look at how the community's needs have evolved, as well as trends and revelations that have emerged within nonprofits as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Food Security: An appetite for education
The need: Two-thirds of Hamilton County's 45,000 students rely on the school system for meals. So, in March 2020, when schools shut down due to the pandemic, hunger became a real concern for local families.
"Nutrition had always been the focus of our food program," says Kristen Nauss, Hamilton County Schools' director of school nutrition. "But suddenly we had to pivot from thinking about quality to thinking about how we get food in students' hands."
The effort: At this time last year, Hamilton County Schools had already delivered more than 1 million meals to at-home students, which the district managed through use of its bus system, plus partnerships with organizations such as BlueCare Tennessee, Two Men and a Truck and even TriStar Beverage, which loaned a refrigerated trailer to aid in meal delivery.
When school bus drivers went home for the summer, the school system began to organize meal pickup locations throughout the Chattanooga area. For parents without transportation, it offered free home delivery, thanks to a partnership between United Way and food delivery service DoorDash.
This year, Hamilton County classrooms were open for 90% of the school year. But the now communitywide effort to get nutrition to students in need did not relent. Snack Pack Program and Chattanooga Area Food Bank partnered to send students home with food for the weekend — an effort continuing through the summer.
And this coming school year, all Hamilton County students will be provided free in-school meals.
"It will allow families to put that money to other needs," says Nauss.
From March 2020 t0 June 2021, Hamilton County Schools has helped provide 5.75 million meals to students, in school, over the weekends and even during summer breaks.
"We saw the need and we evolved with it," says Kate Skonberg, Hamilton County Schools' family and community engagement coordinator.
"The pandemic shone a spotlight on how much our schools provide for students. We may think that we just provide education, but some families rely on us for things like food and counseling, too," Skonberg says.
"And these are services that help students with their education," adds Nauss. "It provides a sense of normalcy for children learning from home. Our food is the one thing that still feels like school. We definitely got plenty of handwritten cards from kids."
Digital Equity: A deeper connection to community
The need: Digital connection became critical in providing resources and education amid the pandemic. But for low-income families and senior citizens, access to the internet wasn't always available at home — or, in some cases, even within walking distance.
Geoff Millener, senior program and operations officer of The Enterprise Center, which jumped in to increase digital access across the region, says dozens of coffee shops in downtown Chattanooga offer free WiFi, but in other neighborhoods, access is not a given.
"This may not be true anymore, but someone once mentioned to me that there isn't a single coffee shop in East Lake," says Millener. "It's a reasonable expectation that you should be able to do your work in your own neighborhood."
The effort: By August 2020, The Enterprise Center had established a network of more than 100 WiFi hotspots around the county to aid in providing resources and education amid the pandemic.
The ultimate goal, Millener said at the time, was to get more than 8,000 households within a five-minute walk to free public WiFi.
"We blew that goal out of the water," he now says.
Working with EPB and neighborhood leaders, The Enterprise Center identified areas with the greatest need for better connectivity, as well as places where residents felt safe: parks, community centers, coin laundries and Chattanooga Housing Authority sites, for example.
To date, it has added a total of 126 new access points — including 30 in East Lake and Clifton Hills neighborhoods, which have helped connect more than 12,000 people to walkable WiFi.
By June 2021, those gig-backed "Quick Connect" hotspot sites had logged more than 100,000 user sessions. And those numbers continue to climb — and will for some time.
"We are committed to doing this work for at least ten years," Millener says.
"It's unfortunate that it took the entire world shutting to understand the digital divide," Millener says. "I don't like the phrase 'silver lining' but we've been able to take this new shared understanding of (digital) access and see it's not just the role of one organization. It is an honest-to-God community and increasingly regional effort. I've seen that change. We are leaving this experience fundamentally different than we entered it."
Latino Outreach: Translating compassion
The need: Early in the pandemic, Hamilton County's Latino population was hit hard, with data showing that half of all cases were among these communities. The issue for nonprofits became how to connect with non-native English speakers in order to provide information and access to resources and testing.
The effort: Last spring, as COVID-19 cases rose, La Paz partnered with the Community Foundation, CEMPA Community Care, LifeSpring Community Health, Alleo Health and Clinica Medicos, among others, to provide testing sites with language and cultural support for the Latino community.
In 2020, the partnership tested a total of 1,817 people at 10 events where Chattanooga Area Food Bank provided food boxes to families for further support — support that continued into 2021.
To date, says Stacy Johnson, executive director of La Paz Chattanooga, they have helped feed a total of 2,125 families.
Meanwhile, efforts to test transitioned into efforts to promote vaccination. In 2021, La Paz collaborated with the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County to form a grassroots communications campaign and create a comprehensive Spanish guide to COVID-19, which was shared through flyers, social media and community leaders.
By mid-June 2021, a total of 7,872 Latino individuals — about 35% of the local Latino population, according to Johnson— had been at least partially vaccinated.
"These numbers can be attributed to the ongoing efforts," Johnson says. "We know that the worst of the pandemic has passed, but there are still many families that are struggling to catch up and make up for the income that was lost."
In addition to educational support and food boxes, La Paz has helped provide direct financial assistance to Latino families. In May 2020, it established the Latinx Relief Fund, raising $234,000, which it used to support more than 435 families through money for things like rent and bills. This May, La Paz was awarded $200,00 in emergency solution grant funds to further help those suffering from economic loss.
"We are encouraged that through the strengthening of our partnerships with other agencies and organizations, they have seen the value in fostering direct relationships with Chattanooga's Latino community," says Johnson. "Our hope is that through these collaborations, we have influenced sustainable relationships across sectors that positively impact our Latino population."
Elder Care: Innovation the "old fashioned" way
The need: Last year, when the public was urged to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, senior citizens were more likely to be physically or digitally removed from valuable resources, especially those living alone.
The effort: Beginning in March 2020, the city of Chattanooga began coordinating with volunteers to make phone calls to seniors in order to ensure they had what they needed. Pulling contact information from the city's voter registration roll, the volunteers would ask questions and work to identify at-risk seniors who needed to be connected with case managers.
"A lot of really special stories came from that program," Garrison says.
For example, Connor Tarter, United Way director of marketing and communications, remembers when a volunteer contacted a woman and learned she had run out of food that very day. United Way was then able to step in to get her groceries.
"The senior phone bank was used during the initial response to the pandemic but ended really by the time [the story] ran (last August)," says Brooke Satterfield, director of policy planning and implementation for the Office of Mayor Tim Kelly.
By then, she explains, the task force had divided into sub-committees. Multiple community partners, including the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Chattanooga Housing Authority, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and Alexian Group, among others, had begun work on the long-term needs of older adults.
"The big things were making sure older adults had access to testing, rides to doctor appointments and ways to get prescriptions filled. It was an eye-opening experience for a lot of us," Satterfield says. "The shutdown showed us how some people and some areas of our community just don't have access to certain resources.
"So often when people think of innovation, they think it has to be some wildly complex, technology-enabled fix out of Silicon Valley," Tarter says. "But so much of the innovation that came out of COVID-19 was about basic necessity. It was about getting into a room together, connecting the dots and figuring out how to do things on a shoestring budget."
THE NEW NEEDS
Since August 2020, United Way's COVID-19 task force has expanded its focus from four big issues to 13. To tackle these needs, the task force divided into sub-committees, each working to brainstorm solutions on one of the following:
* Food security
* Digital equity
* Elder care
* Latino/immigrant outreach
* Child care
* Community safety
* Disability community
* Education/student support
* Emotional health
* Homeless/displaced community
* Nonprofit advocacy
* Rent/housing assistance
* Small businesses