The COVID-19 pandemic has made 2020 a rough year for everybody. For some of our Michiana neighbors, it’s been unbearable.
“Our food bank and pantries are getting slammed. People are lining up at 8:30 a.m. for a 4:30 p.m. food distribution, and we haven’t yet hit the peak of this crisis. How can you wrap your head around that?” said Laura Jensen, president and CEO of United Way of St. Joseph County.
Jensen has been in the trenches with other community leaders since early 2020, working to anticipate and respond to the community’s needs associated with the pandemic — all while coordinating United Way’s annual campaign.
“The campaign is about sustaining our nonprofit partners and helping make them whole and to be able to continue operating the same programs they were pre-COVID,” Jensen said.
United Way funds 26 local nonprofit organizations through its annual campaign, to which Notre Dame faculty and staff contribute. Last year, Notre Dame faculty and staff contributed about $200,000 to United Way. While donations are down this year, there is still time to give.
“We’re hoping we can close that gap because it directly impacts what we’re able to allocate to community partners,” Jensen said. “They already depend on United Way funding to sustain themselves and so many other sources of revenue have decreased drastically while costs have increased drastically,”
Jacqueline Kronk, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County, sees first hand the toll the pandemic is having on the community's most vulnerable.
“The children we serve come from neighborhoods that have been under-resourced for decades, particularly the southeast and west sides of South Bend,” Kronk said. “You’ve got all these variables, like poverty and substance abuse and mental health challenges and then you throw in a pandemic and it compounds things and complicates them and makes it even more challenging for a young person to be successful. I think we have the responsibility to step up as a community and embrace those among us.”
Seventy percent of the families the Boys and Girls Clubs assist are single-parent homes.
“If you're a working parent and school’s out of session, you have no options for child care,” Kronk said. “More often than not, their jobs require that they be there in person, so single parents are challenged with difficult decisions: Do I put food on the table or do I watch my first grader? That's a decision that no parent should have to make, and that’s what’s happening.”
As a result of the pandemic, the local Boys and Girls Clubs have expanded their programming to include e-learning.
“Normally, we are open from three to six p.m. with after-school programming,” Kronk said. “As a result of COVID, we launched an e-learning program. For 10 weeks, we were open from eight to six across seven locations. Since South Bend schools went to hybrid learning, we are running e-learning one day a week in addition to our afterschool programming. However, with the increase in cases, we are now bracing ourselves for a return to full eLearning. The ongoing implications from COVID are far from over.”
The increased programming comes at a cost.
“We had to up our staffing by almost a third,” she said.
Kronk credits Jensen and other community leaders for coming together early in the pandemic to create the COVID Fund.
“Laura and others have done an outstanding job of jumping ahead of this and bringing together the powers that be to make decisions on how to best serve those who are really suffering right now as a result of the pandemic. For those in the lowest socioeconomic bracket, this is catastrophic,” Kronk said.
Jensen recalls leaders of nonprofits and private and family foundations coming to the table in early March at the request of the St. Joseph County Health Department.
“The health department told us, ‘Listen, we want to make the recommendation to close schools, but we can’t do that in good conscience, unless there is some type of fund to support these families.’ That’s how the COVID Fund was born,” Jensen said.
The Community Foundation came forward with a lead gift of $200,000. That was followed up with a $1.6 million gift from the Lilly Foundation. So far, $3.2 million has been raised for the COVID fund, but there are more than $3 million in asks and the money is expected to run out by June. About 50 agencies are benefitting from the fund, which the United Way manages without taking administrative fees.
“The COVID Fund is for those immediate pop-up needs — increased costs — that agencies face due to COVID,” Jensen said. “For example, e-learning was not on anybody’s radar, but now there is funding needed for it. All of our nonprofit partners have seen their operating expenses increase. Volunteers have dropped off. They’re having to increase staff hours. Their cleaning and sanitizing expenses are up. They need to buy masks. The homeless centers are spending way more on food now because donations have dropped off significantly.”
By contributing or even increasing a gift to the annual United Way drive, Notre Dame employees help United Way partners do what they do best. In the case of the Boys and Girls Clubs, Kronk says that means, “Ensuring that every child who walks into our building is seen, is valued, is engaged, because we need to acknowledge them for their gifts and what their potential is, not by the deficiencies they are facing.”