Beyond Hunger volunteers during a drive-thru distribution. | Courtesy Beyond Hunger

Like the rest of the world, local not-for-profits were hit hard by Covid. Unlike the rest of the world, these organizations couldn’t simply close up shop. Due to the essential nature of their work, they had to keep their doors open and find new and innovative ways to serve a population that was more in need than ever. Here a few leaders detail how the pandemic has affected their missions.

Merry Beth Sheets, executive director of Hephzibah in Oak Park

Merry Beth Sheets

Executive Director of Hephzibah in Oak Park

Sheets says that Covid’s impact has been profound on the organization and the children and families it serves. “It didn’t cause us to rethink our mission, we just dove deeper. When schools and daycares close, our families needed us more than ever before. We serve essential workers. We pivoted from being an after-school program to a full day, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. program.”

She notes that Hephzibah’s residential program also suffered. Children in the group home could no longer go to school, so the staff became responsible for supervising and instruction during school hours.

For Sheets, the impact of Covid was immediate. “We realized that we couldn’t shut down. Our group home kids needed us more; our foster care children needed us more; our intact families needed us more.”

Keeping children and families safe while giving them the supports they needed took on an urgent role. While Hephzibah weathered 2020 with federal PPE loans, Sheets emphasizes, “We serve kids 11 and under. In many, many ways, Covid is not over.”

Because of local quarantine protocols, children can’t attend school or after school programming on a regular basis. Daycare protocols mean the program has been cut from 60 children to 30. Revenue has been cut in half, but expenses have stayed the same.

A lot of support that was there in 2020 is not there in 2021, and Sheets says that Covid has emphasized the importance of Hephzibah for the community, saying “We provided support for thousands of kids and hundreds of families. Covid just highlighted the need for that support.”

Malcolm Crawford, executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association

Malcolm Crawford

Executive Director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association

For Crawford the impact of Covid was personal and professional. During the pandemic’s first month, he lost his cousin to the disease. 

He says, “I’ve always known that when Americans get a cold, African Americans die. Time has shown that our community has been disproportionately affected by Covid-19.”

From the perspective of the AAABNA, he says that Covid was immediately a life-changing phenomenon. He says, “Our organization prides itself on monthly person-to-person, interactive meetings.”

While Zoom offered an alternative, he says, “It completely derailed our energy and opportunities to connect.”

Athena Williams, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center

Athena Williams

Executive Director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center

Williams says that because the onset of the pandemic coincided with her taking the reins at OPRHC, the initial shut down allowed her time to evaluate the current state of OPRHC and where it was headed. She says, “I was allotted the time, a fraction of time, to begin to see the next chapter for OPRHC. I say fraction of time, because once the shroud of Covid had peeled back, and we were able to peek through, we began to see the daunting effects that were taking place in the housing industry. OPRHC was able to swiftly step up and be present for the renters we have served all of these years.”

Williams says that because of the nature of the work at OPRHC, they kept working with clients, saying, “We never closed our doors. We did not lay off any employees.”

Mike Powell, Beat the Street Chicago

Mike Powell

Beat the Street Chicago

Mike Powell says the organization, which offers wrestling and enrichment programs to give Chicago youth the skills they need for success in life, says the organization was profoundly impacted by Covid, as were the kids they serve.  

“I think the moment that most stands out was when we realized that the kids we had grown to love, who we had watched develop as young women and men, had no hope of getting on a wrestling mat for the foreseeable future. The mat is our classroom, where life’s greatest lessons are taught and it’s most important values are learned. To think of our kids, many of whom were in apartments by themselves during the day for months on end, had lost meaningful contact with their role models and the sport that was their vehicle to a better life, was as heart wrenching as just about anything an organization like our can go through.”

He says that throughout the pandemic knowing that the despair, loneliness, anxiety, and anger the kids felt was really the challenge. 

Michele Zurakowski

Chief Executive Officer of Beyond Hunger

Zurakowski says Covid was an immediate game changer for the food pantry’s operations. Instead of being a community hub, where clients could receive nutrition education and “shop” for foods, the food pantry became a drive-through. 

Clients were afraid to come out in person, and some stopped coming. Zurakowski says the organization’s use of client advisory councils made up of program participants allowed them to keep a finger on the pulse of the rapidly changing needs in the communities they serve. 

Circumstances surrounding Covid created a change in the typical client base. In fiscal year 2019, 75% of Beyond Hunger’s clients identified as Black; 12% as Latinx; 8% as white; 3.5% as other racial groups and 1.5% as multi-racial.

In fiscal year 2021, 42% identify as Black, 40%; as Latinx, 13% as white; 3% as other racial groups and 2% as multi-racial.

Zurakowski says that during the pandemic, Beyond Hunger had fewer clients from Austin, and outreach showed there were three reasons for that: people were afraid to go out because of Covid; SNAP benefits had increased so much, they didn’t need the food pantry anymore; and there was misinformation about what food pantries were still open.

David Bradley, Beyond Hunger’s distribution supervisor, loads a turkey into a car during drive-thru distribution. | FILE

Beyond Hunger saw more clients from Berwyn during Covid. Zurakowski notes that Berwyn has a large immigrant population which was not eligible for federal benefits.

She says, “Covid showed all the disparities that exist. For us, it’s showing us that different communities have different needs.”

At the end of the day, she says there is still great need noting “85% of households we serve have seniors, people with disabilities, children or veterans. These are always the vulnerable populations.”

For Zurakowski, while Covid highlighted the need, the federal relief programs also highlighted a solution. She says, “For me the big story is that the federal government can change people; it can take them out of poverty. A food pantry can’t do this — we’re a Band-Aid, but the government can.”

She says, “As a society, we can end hunger if we want to. There is a path forward, and we saw it.”

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