Closing is not an option for social services
Our staff is on the front line, helping those in need with food, housing, fuel, and more in four counties and getting ready for a surge.
— Jan Demers of CVOEO
MIDDLEBURY — The list of restaurants, inns and businesses that have closed — or have dramatically changed their business plans — continues to grow by the day (see related story). But closing is not an option for many local nonprofits, who will only see demand for food, clothing and debt relief grow as the coronavirus transitions from threat to reality in our region.
Officials at Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) and Addison Community Action/Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (ACA/CVOEO) anticipate a surge in assistance requests from a growing number of area residents who suddenly find themselves unemployed or furloughed due to COVID-19 issues.
Officials vowed to continue their critical mission of getting food and other necessities to those who need help. And they’ll do it with a minimum of in-person contact in an effort to keep clients as healthy as possible during this temporary era of quarantines, “social distancing” and high anxiety.
“My goal is to keep staff, clients, and other visitors safe while continuing to provide services to the greatest extent possible,” HOPE Executive Director Jeanne Montross told the Independent on Tuesday. “Our early steps are to prevent spread of germs — distancing, sanitizing and cleaning. Many of the people who come to us have compromised health already, and we don’t want them to be exposed to the coronavirus.”
As the Independent went to press on Wednesday, HOPE’s food shelf was working overtime to provide sustenance to low-income families, including those with children suddenly exiled from public school classrooms. Those households, Montross noted, rely heavily on school meals to feed children through the workweek. School districts are cobbling together meals for struggling families, but HOPE and other organizations are filling in the gaps.
“We sent a ton of food to the schools on Monday,” Montross said. Items included pastas, fresh and canned fruits and vegetables, eggs (thanks in large part to Salisbury’s Maple Meadow Farm), cereal and juices. HOPE is working in particular with the Addison Central School District, which includes the towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
Families visiting HOPE’s food shelf in Middlebury will notice some changes. Instead of being able to peruse and take from the shelves, they must make a list of the items they need. HOPE volunteers and workers will bundle the items for takeaway. This minimizes human interaction, Montross explained.
“We’ll be asking that anyone needing assistance who is experiencing signs of illness wear a mask if they come to our office; we have a small supply,” Montross said. “We are asking that, if possible, people call us instead of coming in, and we will try to assist them remotely. We are likely to request volunteer help in delivering food to clients unable to get in to the food shelf. Our biggest need right now is for 90% rubbing alcohol and aloe gel, with which we can make more hand sanitizer.
“We are discussing other options to meet needs, and we are very certain that people will find themselves unable to pay for other necessities including rent, electricity, gasoline, medical needs, etc.,” she added.
While the HOPE food shelf inventory was decent on Tuesday, Montross believes it won’t take long for the reserves to plummet amid increasing demand. But instead of urging people to donate food, HOPE officials are seeking financial contributions in order to buy the mix of groceries and produce that are in most demand.
OFFERING A CHALLENGE
And to that end, HOPE is getting a huge assist from Middlebury’s Vermont Coffee Company, which on Tuesday announced a $25,000 donation challenge designed to yield at least $50,000 to replenish HOPE’s food supplies.
Vermont Coffee Company founder and CEO Paul Ralston said he was moved to make the donation after seeing shoppers flooding grocery stores.
“Whatever disruptions occur in our community, most of us will not fear hunger or homelessness,” he said. “But there are some among us who are already at risk and may become more vulnerable as this situation evolves.”
Donations can be made online here.
“We hope that together we can help others in our community feel safer and more comforted,” said Ralston, “as friends and neighbors, let’s work to restock our local food shelves.”HOPE’s varied services will continue until further notice, with one major exception: Its resale shop has closed and won’t be accepting donations of new and used clothing, furniture, household goods, and other items at this time, according to Montross.
The Independent also spoke with officials from the Addison County Home Health & Hospice and the Counseling Service of Addison County, who said their services continue to be in high demand. They said their workers remain committed to serving what could be a growing number of clients, considering the extra anxiety the coronavirus is placing on people, and what could be a major increase in the number of people in self-quarantine.
Meanwhile, ACA/CVOEO continues to provide food, help people with housing, process fuel assistance requests, and link people with income tax preparation and other important services.
“As the coronavirus takes hold in Vermont, we expect a significant increase of people coming through our doors, as we did during the government shutdown,” reads a message on the cvoeo.org website. “Our staff is on the front line, helping those in need with food, housing, fuel, and more in four counties and getting ready for a surge. Consider a donation to help us continue our work in a time of great uncertainty.”
Jan Demers is executive director of CVOEO. During a Tuesday morning phone interview, Demers said the organization will be working hard to get low-income clients through the coronavirus crisis. She stressed workers will, whenever possible, deal with clients remotely.
“The best thing for people to do is call us, because we want to get people the services they need for the long-term, throughout,” she said. “We have some creative ways of taking care of people’s needs and keeping them and us safe.”
Demers noted the state is at least temporarily relaxing rules that have required people to apply for benefits — such as Crisis Fuel assistance — in person. That kind of application process can now be done over the phone, she said.
Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculture is now allowing CVOEO to sign off for people seeking food commodities. That, too, used to be an in-person requirement.
Income tax assistance can be rendered remotely, without the need for the client sit two feet away.
“We’re using Zoom conferencing to be able to work with our collaborators,” Demers said. “There are a lot of ways to make sure people get what they need in a way that doesn’t diminish our services and still keeps them, and us, safe.”
Like HOPE, CVOEO is asking people to list their food needs for staff who package the products for easy loading in a vehicle.
“We’re just not having people come back to the food shelf (area),” Demers said.
ACA/CVOEO is becoming more proactive in diagnosing people’s needs during this difficult time, officials said.
“We have on our minds those people who have low income and the added stress they’re going through right now,” Demers said. “We want to make sure that we’re able … through the technology we have, to be able to check in with people. We are going to be doing things that are proactive — calling people to see how they are.
“It’s out of compassion and thoughtfulness that we’re trying to frame this. If we get sick, we can’t give the services. If they come here and there’s a crowded waiting room, then they’re putting themselves at risk.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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