One year of fighting COVID-19 on the frontlines.
One of our local nonprofit partner organizations, The Bethlehem Center, has been serving their community as they deal with the fallout of the pandemic for over a year now. They’ve watched an already-struggling neighborhood take a huge economic hit, throwing many of their neighbors off the path to stability and into a financial crisis. But “The Beth” has stepped up and adapted to the challenge at hand.
This week, we sat down with Evan Roan, Education and Marketing Specialist at The Bethlehem Center, to learn more about how the stability of their community has been affected by COVID-19.
Q: When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, what were your community’s most pressing immediate needs?
When schools and places of employment shut down almost instantaneously, immediate needs became simple to understand: food, shelter, childcare and the ability to pay bills. Many individuals and households experienced lost jobs and wages. For the community we serve (an already unprotected community with little resources), living paycheck to paycheck was no longer an option. With children at home everyday, the security of school-sponsored meals for children disappeared. Finding supplementary employment also became more difficult, as childcare was now a necessity for many parents that previously relied on school.
Q: How was the Bethlehem Center equipped to meet those needs?
When the state of emergency was announced, our Executive Director, Reginald Smith, took immediate action. Our building may have been closed to the public, but behind the scenes, the Beth staff was coordinating and working with every resource at our disposal. Our Read to Lead program shifted from afterschool programming for children to transporting the children to HCS food sites to eat breakfast and lunch.
After this was deemed a COVID-19 risk, we began preparing and delivering the meals ourselves. This way, we could still maintain contact with our students in a socially distant manner. We were also calling our families on a daily basis to maintain our relationship with each household and to make sure no emergencies had come up. Our food pantry was still in operation, but we were forced to adapt its operations in order to keep the building closed.
Lastly, our Luke 10:25 fund provided emergency funding for households in dire circumstances.
Q: After a full year of the pandemic, how have those needs changed? What long-term needs have emerged?
Needs have shifted from immediate survival to finding ways to sustain life during this prolonged crisis. Financial needs are still a major issue – households are now accruing debt in addition to the financial hardships they already faced before the pandemic.
Q: What effect has the pandemic had on long-term stability for the individuals and households that your organization serves?
Children are now physically back in school, but they were away from their peers and teachers for almost a year. We’re finding that they have socially regressed and need to relearn how to act around others. Before the pandemic started, our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program made huge strides with a number of our students, specifically in helping children learn how their bodies are affected by and respond to their emotions. Now we’re playing catch up.
For example, Shaya was always a shy child who was often withdrawn from our Read to Lead (another afterschool program) staff, saying a few words only when she had to. Grace Miller, our SEL Coordinator, was able to help Shaya open up and learn how to share her feelings. She quickly blossomed into a smiling, intelligent child who could make anyone laugh.
But as the pandemic continued and staff members would see her during meal deliveries, they noticed that had reverted to her reserved disposition, unable to even say hi. Fortunately, our foundational relationships with the children in our community have made possible the quick re-teaching of these social skills.
Q: How has your organization adjusted its day-to-day work over the past year?
In our Read to Lead program, we immediately shifted from working in the evenings to working in the early mornings. We’ve adapted multiple times to any necessary schedule change, whether that change was mandated by Hamilton County Schools or internally. For example, in December some staff members switched from working our after school program to working early mornings with our Virtual Learning Center due to Chattanooga Charter School of Excellence’s need to remain virtual.
Q: What is necessary for individuals hit hard by the pandemic’s economic effects to get back on track?
A safety net. Unfortunately, for many households in Chattanooga – and especially in Alton Park – the pandemic crisis was not their first encounter with financial hardship. It catalyzed and worsened their already-fragile economic safety. These households need access to the resources available that can help them get back on their feet.
Q: How can our community get involved and support those hit hardest by the pandemic? How can our community support the Bethlehem Center and your work?
It’s important to take the time to learn what the needs are in the Greater Chattanooga community and in specific areas and neighborhoods, and then to take that information and donate the necessary resources to organizations that can make a difference. These resources could include anything from food (perishable and non-perishable goods, baby formula, etc) to clothing to monetary donations to volunteer time.
The best way to support the Bethlehem Center is to check out our website regularly. We make our needs visible there and categorize them by program. Our programs serve and support our youth and adults, as well as enable community outreach.
Get involved in the community fight to recover from the pandemic.
We’re so thankful for organizations like the Beth who are deeply connected to their communities and able to pinpoint and address on-the-ground, evolving needs. But they can’t do this work alone – no one can. They need the support and resources of their community. So spread the word, volunteer your time or donate if you are able to. Reach out to us here at United Way of Greater Chattanooga if you’re not sure where to start. Our mission is to connect resources to change-makes in order to drive community impact. A connected community changes everything, and there is no limit to what we can accomplish when we LIVE UNITED.