Community nonprofits in the United Way of Northeast Mississippi’s area are still learning how to serve amid COVID-19.

The impact of COVID-19 for many nonprofits was a disruption or reduction in services, said Mary Ann Plasencia, director of community impact for United Way. Family stability agencies, pantries, housing and related services continued services while limiting face-to-face interaction.

Many are trying to put doable safety, CDC-recommended guidelines that are applicable to them and can be sustained and practiced daily. Plasencia said this helps organizations maintain a sense of trust and credibility.

“Everybody that we’ve talked to is trying to make sure that they are taking measures so that the clients [feel comfortable returning],” Plasencia said. “If that makes them a safer place for clients to go, then that’s all a good thing.”

Nonprofits have become creative about how they render services, Plasencia said. Clinics are limiting contact between clients and volunteers, and pantries are changing distribution to avoid contact. A few agencies are also doing temperature checks to ensure everyone feels safe, while others have found ways to streamline services electronically and tap technology in ways they haven’t before. Organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and Girl Scouts have moved towards hosting virtual meetings and training. Health agencies found ways to do checkups and certain therapies over the phone or through telehealth.

“It’s really strengthened a lot of agencies in very productive ways,” Plasencia said.

For the COVID-19 Support Fund with United Way and the CREATE Foundation, organizers figured a way to distribute funds without meeting in person. Intakes occurred online and over the phone. The Salvation Army sends funds out via Walmart gift cards. About $20,00 has been released for utilities and rent assistance, with those meetings occurring over the phone and with follow up meetings in person or over the phone. They then write checks directly to utility or rent companies based on need.

United Way has focused most of their efforts towards responding to the crisis, Plasencia said. The COVID-19 Support Fund has raised approximately $400,000 to date and served 17 counties by sending money to agencies in every county. They’ve also received match funding from the Tennessee Valley Association to provide direct assistance to families. Approximately 13,000 received direct assistance in gift card form with utilities, rent, food, medicine, diapers or formula. About 10 food pantries and three programs received funds to give out food boxes and provide prepared meals, serving several thousand families, Plasencia said. An additional 1,600 meals were provided for Feeding the Frontlines to give prepared meals to healthcare workers on the COVID unit at the North Mississippi Medical Center.

Despite efforts, there are some challenges, Plancesia said. Finding volunteers can be difficult, especially for resources such as pantries, with other rely on a lot of older volunteers.

“People have been a little reluctant to volunteer,” Plasencia said. “[Nonprofits] had to get a little more creative with where they usually tap their volunteers from.”

Agencies are also worried about their fundraising.

“The majority of our agencies are worried about, if they had a summer or spring fundraising event, how do they recoup that annual event that everyone looks forward to and that traditional donors give to every year,” Plasencia said.

It has forced agencies to move to trying to engage donors electronically or in new ways, such as hosting letter writing campaigns. United Way pledges have been steady so far, and throughout the pandemic, United Way has given additional aid to organizations dealing with housing, shelter, food insecurity, financial assistance due to an uptick in need for those services.

Plasencia said the pandemic also presents fundraising challenges for United Way, which provides funding for over 60 partner agencies. They typically raise the majority of their funds through workplace campaigns, but have to adapt and may do digital campaigns for workplaces. United Way’s ability to grant the same allocation dollars as last year for agencies will depend on if they are able to get enough money to honor future commitments.

Despite this, Plasencia feels they will continue to see a higher number of people requiring shelter, food, free clinics, mental health services and after school programs. Even among working families, she said that with reduced hours, there could still be a good number of families not fully financially restored.

“The needs were there before the pandemic, and the needs are probably going to be a little more acute in some areas during and after this pandemic,” Plasencia said. “We have a very giving region, and we hope that that tradition continues because I do think we’re going to see some families [in need].” .

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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