The COVID-19 pandemic has put newfound emphasis on the human in Human Services. Headlines, surveys, and reports abound with sector trends that reveal startling realities faced by individuals and families across our community. Sudden changes in our society due to the global pandemic have made many more people vulnerable than ever before, and those who were already facing difficulties have been pushed even further to the brink due to loss of employment, food insecurity, and reduced access to essential medical and social services, among many, many other situations. In response to these evolving concerns, nonprofit and community partners have innovated their operations to transform how the important services they offer better connect, share and heal to save lives and livelihoods.
In a virtual panel discussion held on August 5th, four community partners alongside the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s Kirsten Russell, Vice President of Community Impact, dove in to explain challenges encountered by adapting the human service model during a pandemic. Speaking from their experiences on the frontlines of health and economic challenges posed by COVID-19, each panelist shared meaningful insights and stories on how the needs in our community are changing, what is on the horizon, and how each of us can offer support.
CEO, All Faiths Food Bank
As food insecurity rose in step with the tidal wave of unemployment, late-March became an inflection point for All Faiths Food Bank. In quick response to developing guidelines, All Faiths revised their distribution system by converting all operations to drive-thru and offering walk-up options for those who do not have access to a vehicle. Over the last six months, the nonprofit organization has seen distributions increase 100%, with 45% of these going to first time beneficiaries. The statistics continue to be revealing: this year alone, All Faiths expects to distribute 20 million pounds of food to those in need in Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
Amidst all these challenges lies a glimmering silver lining. As Frank reflected, a mental transition in food bank thinking is taking place to focus more on identifying and remedying the underlining causes of hunger and food insecurity using data-driven and evidence-based methods. This shift in thinking has already transformed into visible outreach, with All Faiths establishing a resource center in DeSoto County where food security is paired with other desperately needed services. Local philanthropists are also noticing these important trendlines, with the most recent being a partnership between the Joe and Mary Kay Henson Family Fund and an anonymous donor with the Community Foundation offering a $600,000 matching opportunity to support All Faiths’ efforts to address this public health crisis.
Dr. Kameron Hodgens
CEO/Executive Director, Glasser-Schoenbaum Human Services Center
While the 14 buildings that make up the Glasser-Schoenbaum Human Services Center may be quieter than normal, the 20 organizations under its wing are hard at work enhancing connectivity and collaboration between the networks that define our community. According to Dr. Hodgens, strong networks depend on trust and value: trust among nonprofit organizations and their efforts to better clients’ lives; and value, tied to education, among partnerships helps foster learning and complimentary services. Since pivoting to virtual services, Glasser Schoenbaum’s nonprofit partners have seen this trust and value transform into higher attendance and engagement with their clients, reflecting technology’s role in increasing accessibility and reducing traditional barriers such as transportation and childcare.
Yet, Dr. Hodgens remarked that adapting amidst COVID-19 feels like building a plane while also flying it over uncharted territory. So, the challenge remains: how can we identity and articulate pressing community needs if we don’t know what we don’t know? For Glasser-Schoenbaum, the answer lies in relying on those trusted networks that connect people to valuable resources and opportunities to regain stability once again, such the community-wide partnership Season of Sharing.
Dr. Lisa Merritt
Founder & Executive Director, Multicultural Health Initiative
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Multicultural Health Initiative (MHI) proactively coordinated a community-wide action coalition, bringing together volunteers and health care professionals to address the disproportional health disparities experienced by our communities of color. Guiding their work are the pillars of public health – good information, protection by providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to high-risk workers, linkage to care – all conducted in a safe environment.
Facilitating this dissemination of information and resources, according to Dr. Merritt, is the power of partnerships. Over the course of the pandemic, MHI has created a resource webpage that connects those in need to 20 community organizations, links to county and state resources in multiple languages (Spanish and Haitian Creole), live COVID-19 case tracking by zip code, and various donation opportunities. One such opportunity is the “Mask Brigade,” an initiative that identifies vulnerable populations in need of masks and unites groups that sew to fulfill that need. To date, nearly 11,000 conventional and hand-made masks have been distributed to high-risk populations and essential workers.
Dr. Janet Taylor
Psychiatrist, Self-Care Expert, Culture Shift Educator, Centerstone of Florida
Board Member, Community Foundation of Sarasota County
Our community is facing dual public health crises: one recently brought on by COVID-19, the other by centuries of systemic racism and timeworn injustices. As a community psychiatrist, Dr. Taylor has witnessed how the structural determinants of health – employment, housing, food security, and access to treatment – intertwine with the development of our potential, acting either as encouraging or limiting forces that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Chief among these forces: mental health. While acknowledging a mental health crisis existed prior to the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Taylor is increasingly concerned for families and individuals who are not connected to any support network as well as the lack of vigilance on domestic and child abuse due to social distancing guidelines. How we can find, help, and connect these people largely depends on education and leveraging our own network of peers. On all these fronts, Dr. Taylor suggests we embrace a mentality of “leaving no rock unturned” as we move forward in confronting our community’s public health crises.
Towards a New Humanity in the Human Services Model
At the end of this discussion, Dr. Taylor shared her belief that a new humanity was developing within Human Services. Rather than looking at color, zip code, or dress code, this new humanity urges us to realize that we all need and benefit from connection, that helping someone else does not take resources away from another, and that sharing makes all of us better. This mentality shift is spreading to all corners of our community and building upon new and existing connective services helping dispel dangerous assumptions, misunderstandings, and historical disparities that still exist within our broader community.
While the path ahead is undeniably fraught with challenges, all panelists looked to hope as our greatest source of unity, strength, and resolve. When asked what gave them hope, everyone had a personal story to tell: community organizations coming together to help a single mother and her daughter; philanthropic individuals rallying together during the 2020 Giving Challenge and beyond; and, younger generations giving voice to action to bring about a more equitable future. Shining through all these stories and experiences is the unbreakable resiliency of the human spirit and that by helping one person at a time, we all can make a difference.