No-contact nonprofits: Isabella County organizations navigate the COVID-19 pandemic

Mr. Rogers once said to look for the helpers during times of disaster. In Isabella County, helpers are finding ways to keep doors open, people fed, and provide resources to those in need.

They are doing so under an increasing strain on nonprofits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses that once provided vital services and supplies are now disrupted. Fundraising events that provided crucial financial support are being cancelled. Many nonprofits are struggling with staff layoffs and the loss of volunteers.

Despite all the challenges, many community leaders are rallying to support Isabella County.

“As we have all needed to adapt, it’s been particularly impressive to hear from our local nonprofits about how they are modifying operations to continue to support fellow community members,” says Amanda Schafer, executive director of the Mt. Pleasant Area Community Foundation.

Here are a few of the organizations that are adapting their operations to help support the community.

The Care Store offers curbside assistance to meet basic needs

A few local nonprofit organizations have collaborated to provide emergency assistance to those in need by coordinating drive-thru distributions at the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center.

“It's a one stop for people,” says the Humane Animal Treatment Society (HATS) Executive Director, Angela Miedema. “You don't have to go around to a lot of areas in the community so we're trying to minimize the amount of contact with others.”

A volunteer for the Humane Animal Treatment Society (HATS) assembles packages of cat and dog food for distribution at the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center to provide food assistance to those in need.

During the distributions, The Care Store offers emergency hygiene kits and household items; the Community Compassion Network (CCN) provides food, formula, diapers, and diaper wipes; and HATS distributes packages of dog and cat food.

Miedema says the pet food assistance that they provide during the distributions are supplemented by donations from businesses such as Meijer and Target that donate damaged bags of pet food to HATS.

The Care Store distributed over 800 emergency hygiene kits throughout April during the drive-thru distributions. Kim McBryde, executive director of The Care Store, says the organization served over 400 families just during the first week of May.

Normally, The Care Store offers in-person shopping for personal and household items to those with an agency referral. To minimize risk to their guests, staff, and volunteers, they came up with the curbside service as a no-contact solution and are not currently requiring any kind of a referral.

“Whether or not somebody is from this area or has shopped with us ever before, it doesn't matter,” says McBryde. “We just know that there is a significant need in the community.”

With The Care Store’s usual collection sites for donations, such as schools and churches, not participating right now, the emergency hygiene kit distributions have increased costs for the organization.

A volunteer puts items into The Care Store's emergency hygiene kits at the William and Janet Strickler Nonprofit Center.

“The donated items are really the lifeblood of what we have at The Care Store that we can never afford to buy,” says McBryde. “Now we're having to buy it all, and for us to go purchase what we need we hit the same walls. We have to buy from Amazon and Sam's Club and the same place everybody else is buying from. ”

To support The Care Store:
Text-to-Give: Text "Give" to (989) 264-1771
By mail: Attn: The Care Store
1114 W. High Street, Mount Pleasant, MI 48858

The Humane Animal Treatment Society responds to increase in pet abandonment

The Humane Animal Treatment Society (HATS) is also facing challenges on the home-front, in particular with an increase in pet abandonment cases and fewer staff.

Before the pandemic, the organization employed 20 staff members. Currently, the organization is operating with six.

The Humane Animal Treatment Society is responding to an increased level of pet abandonment calls.

“We have lost over half of our team,” says Miedema. “Animal Control is not responding to calls unless someone is currently being attacked in the community by dog. We are fielding all of the calls for them with that few of staff.”

Miedema says that they are responding to pet abandonment calls every day, above the level that they anticipated. She encourages pet owners that are struggling with their pets to call HATS.

“There is no judgment if you cannot take care of your animal, but if it's just a need for pet food or resources, we may be able to help you keep your animal,” says Miedema. “If it's behavioral problems, we can provide training advice. There is a lot of stress happening at home and that resonates with our animals. We can work with people to give them the resources that they need so that hopefully things can go back to normal.”

Miedema says the drop in monetary donations has been difficult as well because they need funds to be able to pay trained staff.

“Even though food, beds, and toys are great, we still need people here to feed and clean up after the animals every single day,” says Miedema. “Volunteers supplement it, but we also need trained staff. People may not realize, but we are the ones handling the neglect, cruelty, and bite cases in the community. We train staff to do that safely, which helps to keep the community safe, and monetary donations fund those personnel.”

To support The Humane Animal Treatment Society:
By mail: HATS
P.O. Box 732, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48804

Isabella County Child Advocacy Center prepares for increase in demand for services

Staff at the Isabella County Child Advocacy Center (ICCAC), which provides educational and preventative programs and aids in the investigation of child abuse reports, are currently undergoing training to prepare for a huge increase in demand of services as a result of the pandemic, says Meg Schubert, executive director of the ICCAC.

“All of these kiddos who normally have contact with healthy, mandated reporters – like teachers or bus drivers – are now stuck with their abusers,” says Schubert. “All of the research indicates that it is over double the amount of what it would be if these children were outside of their homes for a certain portion of the day.”

Schubert says that even if it doesn’t result in child abuse, children are still feeling the stress of the epidemic. Families are under more pressure and ICCAC expects to see twice the amount of reports this summer.

“In 2008, just having an economic recession caused a dramatic increase in reports of child abuse,” says Schubert. “People are stressed about food, about jobs. All of that can trickle down into the children.”

She recommends that parents communicate with their children about how they’re feeling, acknowledge their fears and concerns, and try to focus on the positives.

The ICCAC is also using this time to find additional funding sources, since it has been forced to cancel some of its largest fundraisers as a result of the pandemic - including the annual Zoo in the Park, which draws over 2,000 people.

“The event allows us to fundraise with some other partners in the community and not having that is going to dramatically affect our operations,” says Schubert. “We’ve been busy trying to secure additional funding by applying for grants because we are expecting a financial hardship from losing our Zoo in the Park event. Unfortunately, every nonprofit is doing that right now so those funds are going to be really competitive and very limited.”

To support The Isabella County Child Advocacy Center:
By mail: 2479 Rosewood N. Drive, Suite B, Mount Pleasant, MI 48858

Isabella Community Soup Kitchen transitions to to-go meals

Prior to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order, the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen (ICSK) operated as a communal dining center providing two meals per day Monday through Saturday. In accordance to regulations under the executive order and social distancing standards, the soup kitchen is now providing to-go meals three days per week.

Sarah Adkins, executive director of ICSK, says that normally the soup kitchen receives about 90% of the food they serve as donations from area restaurants and supermarkets. With the shift to providing to-go meals, she says they have been experiencing a large increase in costs.

A volunteer distributes sack lunches outside of the Isabella Community Soup Kitchen.

"For food and supplies in a month, on the high end, I normally would have spent $1,000. Now, I'm spending about $1,000 a week,” says Adkins. “Before [the pandemic] we would serve about 100 lunches a day, and now we are seeing between 120 to 175 people on the days we are open.”

Since Central Michigan University (CMU) transitioned to remote learning due to the coronavirus, the ICSK has lost much of its volunteer base as many students volunteer at the soup kitchen to fulfill class requirements.

Adkins says that while they are always looking for new volunteers, many members of the community and the board have stepped in to help volunteer.

“The community is so supportive of us and I just feel so privileged that we are able to provide a basic need of food,” says Adkins. “Hopefully it takes some stress away from people who are struggling with food insecurity.”

To support The Isabella Community Soup Kitchen:
Food donations accepted M/W/F 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Moving forward: A resilient community

Many nonprofits have redesigned the way that they operate in order to continue carrying out their missions and providing for the people they serve. They are finding innovative ways to communicate, collaborate, and support one another.

And although they are continuously monitoring the ever-changing status of the virus, these organizations are discussing the best way to navigate the transition back to regular operations. Many are discussing how to incorporate safe, no-contact alternatives within their business while continuing to adhere to social distancing and safety practices - all so that they can come back stronger.

“I have no doubt that our community will respond to make sure we can continue to take care of each other throughout this pandemic and long after,” says Schafer. “It’s what we do.”

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