As COVID-19 Creates Statewide Job Loss, Rural And Small Nonprofits Push Themselves To Meet Needs
Fewer than 15,000 people live in the Eastern Plains counties of Yuma and Washington combined. Before the coronavirus pandemic, just four families, give or take, relied on the local Rural Community Resource Center’s food banks each week to feed themselves.
During the week of April 6, those food banks served 48 families.
“And so compared to, you know, three or four or five a week previously, 48 is kind of mind-blowing to us,” said interim executive director Margo Ebersole.
About 195 individual people were served by RCRC’s food banks that week, she said.
Typically, families set up appointments to collect food at various times throughout the week. Now, the food is given out “drive-through style” in a single window of time at food banks in Akron and Yuma, allowing people to pick up their food and leave quickly without spending too much time in contact with others.
“There’s certainly more people out of work now than there has been ever before I would say, in my time working here,” Ebersole said.
According to the Department of Labor and Employment, Yuma and Washington counties saw a combined 62 initial unemployment claims the week of April 4. The week before had 32. By comparison, the average weekly unemployment claims in each county were just two in 2019.
As the coronavirus tears at people’s sense of security, many have been turning to nonprofits across the state for support. At first, nonprofits had to scramble to meet the needs of their communities while keeping safety and funding in mind.
Like many nonprofits, Ebersole and her staff, all six of which she has been able to keep on full-time, had to reduce or stop many of the services they normally provide, like parenting classes and literacy events.
They did this for safety, but also to meet the new crop of intense needs created by the pandemic in their community, from food assistance to financial aid for past due rent and utility bills to guidance for parents in the often-confusing new world of online schooling.
“People really just call us if they need different things and we try to be as nimble as we can to meet those needs,” Ebersole said.
It’s easier to be nimble now that some funders and foundations are removing restrictions, like earmarking money for specific purposes, from what they’ve already provided RCRC and other nonprofits. Ebersole says local businesses and community members have been especially keen on helping keep the center’s food bank stocked.
In the northeast corner of the state, Logan County’s initial unemployment claims have exploded to 114 claims in the first week of April. In 2019, the number of average weekly claims was just six.
The city of Sterling holds most of the county’s population and is home to the Family Resource Center, a nonprofit that has drastically reduced operations.
The only non-furloughed person on the FRC’s staff is executive director Yvonne Draxler. She says it was done to guarantee the safety of staff.
Now, the center’s primary work is managing a fridge outside its building that has “take what you need, leave what you can” written on it in blue and yellow paint over a worn purple background.
“Mostly it’s just been a really smooth process where people take what they need and other people put stuff in,” she said.
But as the supply in the center’s indoor pantry has quickly depleted, she’s been pushing people to use the fridge more.
“As I’ve posted it on Facebook to let families know it's available, other families have realized that it's there and they’ve been contributing to it,” Draxler said.
They also have a self-care basket that allows people to take items like scented lotion, provide gift cards to families in need and help other local organizations put together and distribute food to out-of-school students and people experiencing homelessness.
Draxler says the FRC has been helped in all of this by about 10 volunteers. In pre-COVID times, the center would only have two or three a week
“So we have more volunteers, but they’re also different volunteers,” she said. Her usual volunteers haven’t been participating due to concerns about their own health or at the request of their families.
While both nonprofits say they’re doing fine in terms of funding, organizations in Estes Park are getting so much money that it can be overwhelming.
The town of Estes Park allocated $250,000 a couple of weeks ago toward community relief efforts for “food insecurity, housing and support for local businesses and organizations.”
Laurie Dale Marshall is executive director of the Estes Park Nonprofit Resource Center. She said that money, combined with funding from many other sources, has been huge for Estes nonprofits,especially since she was concerned at the beginning of the pandemic that funding would take a hit.
But gathering and utilizing the funding can be fairly time and resource-consuming itself. So the EPNRC is advocating for more “quick and easy” funding sources during this crisis, like the Nonprofit Relief Fund it created with a grant from a local thrift store.
“The greatest need that we have is to ensure that we are staying connected and working collaboratively to get needs met,” Marshall said.
She hopes that the work being done now will show the town’s organizations the value of a more consolidated nonprofit community going forward.
Margo Ebersole of Rural Community Resource Center in Yuma believes that rural and small community nonprofits are particularly good at collaboration.
“I think we really have a good sense of how to collaborate and stretch the resources we have as far as humanly possible,” she said.
Renny Fagan, president and CEO of the Colorado Nonprofit Association, agrees.
“In the Front Range urban areas, you see collaboration among similar mission types,” he said. “But it isn’t probably as cross-cutting as it might be in some rural communities.”
He says more collaboration among organizations happened in the years following the recession and hopes the same will happen after this too.
Fagan wants funding sources to not put restrictions on the money they give these organizations in the future, based on how this crisis showed the need for more flexibility.
“Especially now there has to be a lot of flexibility for how nonprofits are run,” he said. “Just support the nonprofit, don’t earmark that gift for a particular thing.”
The association has put together a weekly virtual get-together for the state’s nonprofits to discuss issues, concerns, and solutions. What Fagan has learned from the organizations he’s heard from is that this crisis will impact them all differently. Some may have to lay off staff, close their doors completely or reduce operations in the long run, while others won’t.
“I don’t think nonprofits would be that, as an industry, would be that much different from other types of industries that are affected,” Fagan said.