CORINTH • There’s little doubt the United Way of Corinth and Alcorn County and its partner agencies have felt the impact of COVID-19.

Whether having to pause certain operations, implement extra safety protocols or navigate new ways to serve clients, nonprofits in Alcorn County are working across a number of challenges brought on by the ongoing pandemic to ensure they can continue to help people.

Founded in the 1940s, Alcorn County’s United Way affiliate is a small operation, just two people, but has had an enormous impact on the local nonprofits it serves. Like any United Way affiliate, the organization helps connect nonprofit groups in the area to a broad base of community donors and has a local board of directors that decides how best to disperse the funds it collects.

The organization serves 14 agencies, among them the Boys & Girls Club of Corinth, Corinth Welfare Association, Easom Outreach Foundation, Faith Haven, MRHC Hospice Volunteer Training and Project Attention.

According to Executive Director Betsy Whitehurst, who has headed the Alcorn County United Way affiliate since 1975, the pandemic has created challenges for the small affiliate on multiple fronts, including reduced financial support, but increased need among the partner agencies they support.

“During COVID, our donations are down, but then we also have agencies who are having trouble,” Whitehurst said.

Because of the pandemic, traditional fundraising efforts have fallen by the wayside, giving the organization far less money with which to work. Despite this, Whitehurst believes the people in their coverage area will do whatever is necessary to ensure the nonprofits that rely on the local United Way for support will receive the funds they need.

United Way affiliates throughout Mississippi have held fundraisers specifically to help bolster the money needed to keep their partners afloat. According to Whitehurst, United Way of Corinth and Alcorn County received less than $10,000 in donated COVID-19 funds, although the organization has received CARES Act funding and federal emergency program funds to help support their efforts.

Whitehurst said they’ve directed their COVID-19 funds to food pantries and organizations that assist with rent and utilities, programs she believes will continue to grow in need as the pandemic stretches on.

Even prior to the pandemic, food insecurity was a major concern for Alcorn County, and Whitehurst believes the pandemic has only deepened that hole. Layoffs, furloughs and reduced employment hours have increased the number of people in Alcorn County who are food insecure or require financial assistance, she said.

“We have a city school system and a county school system, and each has a very high percentage of children who are either on reduced lunches or free lunches, which would indicate there is a lot of food insecurity in Alcorn County to begin with,” she said.

The partner agencies themselves, particularly the ones which work with young children, are having to make significant changes to the way they operate to avoid the kind of close physical interaction that spreads the virus.

“They’re having to think way out of the box in how they provide any kind of program,” Whitehurst said.

Take, for example, the Easom Outreach Foundation.

Although the pandemic has forced the nonprofit, which provides in need citizens with a wide swath of mostly health- and nutrition-focused programs, to halt all indoor activities, including a monthly fellowship dinner that brought together community members of various races and a summer day camp and feeding program, members of the organization have been largely able to continue with their mission.

The organization’s Hot Meals Program, which provides daily meals to senior citizens and disabled community members, has continued its weekday offerings outside their 700 South Crater Street building. Executive Director Samuel Crayton Jr. said the program is crucial for ensuring seniors with disabilities receive a hot meal daily, although the threat of COVID-19 has presented challenges.

“One of the challenges in the community is that some of the elderly people don’t have anyone that can pick up their meals for them, and we’re not licensed to deliver,” Crayton said. “We don’t have the equipment or tools that would allow us to deliver it. Probably, if we had the capacity to deliver, our numbers would possibly triple.”

According to Crayton, the organization serves between 37 and 49 people daily. Clients are selected on referrals primarily from home health agencies, though they occasionally find others through word of mouth and churches.

The Easom Outreach Foundation has a board of seven people who provide the core base of volunteers, alongside two or three occasional volunteers. Crayton said the pandemic has forced two volunteers, both of whom were older or had medical issues that put them at risk, to step back, leaving a vacuum to fill.

Crayton said the group is seeking new volunteers. Those looking for more information can visit the facility during their operating hours.

Another United Way partner, the Corinth Welfare Association, is facing similar challenges of decreased funding but greater need.

Established in 1908, the Corinth Welfare Association received federal CARES Act funds to help Corinthians pay for some of their most expensive bills, in particular rent and utilities.

Executive director Ernestine Norris has worked at Corinth Welfare Association since 2004 after retiring from the American Red Cross. She said the agency typically serves more than 500 people per year. Norris at first believed the number of clients they’ve served this year may be down because of the pandemic and the risk of COVID-19 exposure, but they’ve been seeing increased traffic in recent days.

“It’s increasing now,” Norris said. “It’s getting more than I can handle during times that I’m here. I’m getting bombarded right now.”

The organization is operating as usual with their same screenings and guidelines for service. The agency worked through the pandemic, open during their usual hours of 9 a.m. to noon, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Clients must undergo temperature screenings, and the organization provides masks.

Although there’s a strong desire, even a need, for nonprofits in Corinth and Alcorn County to resume operations in full, Whitehurst said the safety of those organizations’ clients is priority. For their part, Whitehurst said United Way of Corinth and Alcorn County’s overall goal is to raise enough funds through their fall United Way campaign to provide partner agencies with the same funding in 2020 as they did prior to the pandemic.

“Hopefully they’re going to open up full speed ahead, and they’re certainly going to have needs when they do,” Whitehurst said. “It’s a challenge, but we think our population is up to meeting that challenge.”

United Way of Corinth and Alcorn County can be reached at 662-286-8662 by leaving a message.

danny.mcarthur@journalinc.com

Twitter: @Danny_McArthur_

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