For community services organizations, the pandemic & economic crisis have forced drastic changes to operations and funding – at the same time they are called to meet needs on a scale they’ve never experienced.
In a pre-COVID world, Jefferson County Community Ministries (JCCM) focused on providing emergency assistance with food, clothing and shelter. Started in 1982 as an informal agreement between 6 churches in Charles Town, JCCM has since grown to include participation from nearly 50 churches in the area. The large number of volunteers allows JCCM to offer a broad array of services under their umbrella. The Clothing Closet in Charles Town is the organization’s most visible outreach, but JCCM also provides skills coaching, homeless services and some direct financial services.
One of JCCM’s longest-running programs is its Food Pantry. The Food Pantry invites broad participation from JCCM members, as well as local businesses who make frequent donations and other community groups that organize food drives and funding events. Although providing emergency food assistance has always been part of JCCM’s core mission, making sure people are fed has become a top priority for the organization during the pandemic. With the current sustained downturn, the organization has increased the amount of food they provide for a typical client by 25 percent to meet the increased needs they are seeing. This increased demand is not from an occasional or end of month shortfall, but rather a week-after-week need from the same individuals and families. JCCM’s ability to meet this increased level of demand up to now is largely thanks to the continued generosity of the community.
At the same time, the pandemic has introduced new challenges for programs like the Food Pantry. One complication is how to actually get food to those in need. Qualified clients used to walk through the JCCM Food Pantry on West Washington Street in Charles Town to make their own selections. Now, they are met with an intake system. A volunteer does the ‘shopping’ for them while they wait outside.
Obtaining enough food to keep up with client demand is another struggle. As grocery stores impose limits on individual purchases, donors no longer have the option to add extra food to their carts each week. JCCM has turned to buying some items in bulk, but that strategy still has limitations. Assistant Director, Greg Petersen explains, “Normal donations of hot dogs and hamburgers are down. I could order 60 pounds of hamburger, but I can’t break that down to one pound packages for people.”
Many of JCCM’s clients also struggle just to get to Community Ministries during the pandemic. “We are discovering new clients who can’t get out of their homes or people who normally have a ride, no longer do because of the COVID risk.”
Petersen oversees the internal operations of the Ministry and is one of 4 staff in the office. He is confident in the organizations volunteers and says they are great at solving problems before he is even aware of them. “Some have been with us for 20 years and don’t need overseeing.” But the shutdown cut down the volume of volunteers available to the ministry. Almost 90 percent of volunteers dropped out when the governor made his first stay-at-home directive in March. The most experienced volunteers are typically older which puts them in a high-risk group for the virus. Still, JCCM is adjusting to having newer and fewer helpers on hand. Petersen himself has started filling in by driving food to clients who can’t get out. “We focus on client issues not our issues.”
Petersen sees JCCM’s needs compounding as the pandemic response draws out into months. “We don’t think the storm has fully hit yet.” He says many needs are only temporarily addressed by the federal stimulus checks and the state rulings that prevent penalties for not paying utilities and rent. He explains, “While those bills are suspended people can use that money for food. People have lost their jobs and people who normally can pay their bills… we may see a new influx once those bills start up again.”
For now JCCM is focusing on expanding its volunteer base and encouraging giving opportunities, such as GivingTuesdayNow. Information about how to help with both is available on the JCCM website.By Amy Hiett