KZCF's Urgent Relief Fund is part of a network of resources for organizations dealing with COVID-19

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

Updated 4.8.20 with information about successful community match challenge.

Relief for those trying to provide shelter, food, and child care during the coronavirus pandemic is the focus of grants being awarded by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Community Urgent Relief Fund.

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) found its way to Michigan in mid-March – in the form of school closings, business shutdowns, and worker furloughs – the community foundation has been working with others to identify the greatest community-wide needs and strategically award grants to nonprofit organizations working to address those needs.

Sandy Barry Loken, senior community investment officer for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.“The fund exists to respond to community disasters or crises that generally are unpredictable,” says Sandy Barry-Loken, senior community investment officer for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “We’re hearing daily from organizations that are working to support increasing needs around a variety of issues and working to adapt the way they do their work.”

Since it was activated in mid-March to support the fight against COVID-19, the Community Urgent Relief Fund has raised nearly $900,000 and has awarded more than $285,000 to organizations in Kalamazoo County.

There has been an increased need for food assistance, with schools closed since March 12 and many people temporarily laid off. Barry-Loken says some organizations have requested and received assistance to purchase gas cards to repay workers and volunteers who can make deliveries of food and supplies.

There has also been an increase in the need for technology that helps people work remotely in this new age of social distancing. Grants are helping area nonprofit organizations to purchase laptop computers and software applications that allow their staff members to work from home, limiting the potential for person-to-person contact and the spread of the virus.

“Another key area is additional dollars for cleaning supplies to keep spaces safe,” Barry-Loken says. That's the case with nonprofit financial and social services provider Guardian Finance & Advocacy Services. It has received funding to support its efforts to sanitize its offices and help 75 percent of its staff members work from home.

Organizations such as Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes have needed funding to bolster their staffs.

“They have some staff that fall into the high-risk categories (to contract the coronavirus) so they are unable to be present at the food-distribution site,” she says. “They’ve had to bring in people to assist on a temporary basis. We are offering dollars to help pay people when additional capacity is needed.”

Barry-Loken says grant awards have ranged from $1,700 to about $100,000. Smaller amounts are helping to provide such things as technology assistance (such as access to Zoom Video Communications’ remote conferencing services). Higher amounts have gone to support organizations that are providing direct services to people – such as help with transportation, shelter, and food.

The idea to create a Community Urgent Relief Fund was conceived in 2008 after the nation's economic recession. And the Community Foundation has often worked with United Way to deal with community needs such as those for survivors of the Uber Driver shooting in 2016 again in 2018 after flooding left parts of central Kalamazoo under water. Now they are working together again.

Senior Services is set to receive funding from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Urgent Relief Fund to help provide meals to home-bound seniors, technical tools for nursing staff and teleconferencing to coordinate staff and volunteer services.
The Kalamazoo Community Foundation is partnering with the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region, and collaborating with a large group of area nonprofits, to assess the emerging needs of people during the current health crisis and plan strategic responses.

In many cases, grants from the Community Urgent Relief Fund have been awarded in tandem with those provided by the United Way’s Disaster Relief Fund. Throughout the Kalamazoo and Battle Creek region, the fund has raised some $1.1 million and awarded more than $417,000 of that in grants to help the entire region during the pandemic.

“Our organization at the United Way and the Kalamazoo Community Foundation partner very closely together,” says Chris Sargent, president and chief executive officer of the United Way.
Both have emergency relief funds and, in times of community-wide need, staff members from each organization meet three times a week to screen applications for funding.

“While we’re both raising dollars for our respective funds, we are coming together to make decisions about what programs to support in the community,” Sargent says.

Chris Sargent, president and chief executive officer of the United Way.

Adam Castle, community program manager at Gryphon Place, says the foundation’s Community Urgent Relief Fund and the United Way’s Disaster Relief Fund are on the same level in terms of their response to community needs. They are coordinated so that nonprofits only need to fill out one application. That application is reviewed by representatives of both funds.

Gryphon Place is a Kalamazoo-based crisis intervention, conflict resolution, and information referral organization.

“Two of the most prominent needs that we’re seeing right now are grocery delivery and an increase in calls about lost wages,” says Castle, who coordinates a weekly conference call of area nonprofit organizations, working as part of the Kalamazoo County and Battle Creek Response Consortiums.

Grocery delivery calls come from the elderly and others who don’t have easy access to good food. Their problems are exacerbated by the need to stay at home in order to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

“I think you’re seeing more people now due to the mandates,” Barry-Loken says, referring to executive orders by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that ban large gatherings and effectively closed down most businesses, along with suggestions by health care officials that people stay at home.

Human service organizations are hearing from more people “who have lost work in the recent weeks, lost income and are needing to access food,” she says. “I would say people previously who could pay rent are now unable to pay rent.”

They are also hearing from people struggling to access mental health services and social services, she says.

Asked where the funding groups see needs arising as the fight to stop COVID-19 continues, Sargent says that while companies have said they will suspend utility shut-offs, evictions, and foreclosures, “We know that in the future, that will be different.”

So funding organizations are preparing to try to support organizations that help people avoid utility shut-offs, mortgage foreclosures, and evictions from rental properties.

“I think that the challenge with this crisis is it’s really hard to predict how great the needs will be and what people will need months down the line,” Barry-Loken says. “We just know that the needs are going to continue to grow and be significant going forward.”

St. Luke's Episcopal Church Diaper Bank is set to receive funding from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Urgent Relief Fund to help purchase additional diapers, repacking supplies and cleaning supplies.

Among the more than 17 organizations receiving funding from the Foundation’s Community Urgent Relief Fund and the United Way's Disaster Relief Fund are:

Senior Services – to help provide meals to home-bound seniors, technical tools for nursing staff and teleconferencing to coordinate staff and volunteer services.

South Michigan Food Bank – to help purchase and distribute food to people who do not have access to food.

St. Luke's Episcopal Church Diaper Bank – to help the Diaper Bank purchase additional diapers, repacking supplies, and cleaning supplies.

Ministry with Community - to support staff housing, day shelter needs, and transportation.

South County Community Services – to help its staff work from home, to reimburse drivers for gasoline spent on food deliveries and general outreach, and to provide direct assistance to clients for transportation, housing, utilities, and food.

Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes – to help the food bank purchase more food, program supplies and pay its staff.

Christian Neighbors – to purchase food for families who are struggling due to loss of income and/or  Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s shelter-in-home executive order.

Disability Network of Southwest Michigan – to purchase video conferencing technology tools to remotely interface with staff, clients and volunteers.

Community Healing Centers - Supports overtime pay for staff at the Gilmore Treatment Center that provides shelter and support for clients in recovery.

Kalamazoo Gospel Mission – to support the continued operations of the shelter, especially staff wages, cleaning supplies, personal care items for clients and foodservice supplies.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.