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The upside of COVID-19: Valuable lessons learned

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t learn a thing or two from the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic taught us how to wash our hands properly, what a viral load is, who’s an essential worker and how to appear as a person, not a talking kitten, on a Zoom call. For community action workers, the pandemic also drove home lessons about flexibility, partnerships and more. Here’s a look at what three anti-poverty crusaders have to say about what they learned from COVID-19.

Machine learning

Likely the biggest and most ubiquitous impact of COVID-19 is that it forced organizations to modernize technology and adopt remote-working practices.

“Everyone got laptops,” said Natasha Elliott, executive director of Central Piedmont Community Action. “I came in after a director who had been here over 20 years, and everything was done on paper. There was no new technology. COVID made us step into the 21st century.”

Once in, Elliott said it was clear that computer-based processes had advantages, and her organization is going to keep them going. One reason is that online applications are more convenient for many people in need. “Transportation is a huge barrier to people, especially in rural areas,” Elliott explained. “We can’t help people until they’re enrolled in a program, and we were making them find a way to get in here to sign applications. Now, people can sign that application electronically, and it made things easier for our clients.”

Bernita Sims, executive director for the Welfare Reform Liaison Project in Greensboro, said automating application processes “greatly streamlined the work” her organization does. “When you do in-person interviews, it takes quite a bit more time,” she said. “We doubled the number of individuals we were able to serve in any given day, month, or week simply because of our online application process.”

Sims added that remote work and Zoom meetings eliminated the chore of drive-time but came with their own setbacks: It’s harder to disengage from work or take time for things like tackling email or thinking strategically. Still, that reality presented a learning opportunity. Sims said she’s become more adept at time management, using calendar tools to block off focus time so that it doesn’t get swallowed up with back-to-back meetings. She’s also encouraging staff to take the time off that they’ve earned. “Use all of your vacation,” she tells the team. “You can't be continuously bombarded by the things that are impacting families and keep your sanity.”

Howdy, partner

As it turns out, there was so much need, community action agencies partnered up with other organizations. The Charlotte Area Fund, for instance, started offering telehealth counseling as well as online job training, said the organization’s CEO, Nicholas Wharton.

“Most of our workforce development training is hands-on,” Wharton said. Among other things, his organization historically trained people to be HVAC, broadband, and fiber optics technicians. “We went to a virtual platform by partnering with a vendor, and then we could offer training programs in things like medical coding and customer service,” he continued.

Wharton said that these new programs helped his agency continue supporting impoverished families, plus the expanded opportunities gave people a chance to “rethink” what kind of work they were doing. “This was a moment of reflection for many of our clients, and virtual workforce training was a huge benefit.”

Of course, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act—the CARES Act of 2020—also made community action agencies powerful partners because it put $1 billion into the collective coffers of these and similar organizations. “We made a conscious decision very early on when we received our CARES funding that we were going to work with the city and the county so that they expended their funds first because the need was so great,” Sims said. “Now we're the only agency in our community with emergency funding left. It's been a team effort.” WRLP has also joined a partnership network focused on emergency response to evictions or home loss.

Visible difference

Along with helping people learn to work more digitally, efficiently, and collaboratively, the pandemic put a spotlight on community action agencies and their activities. “We saw a lot of people who had never needed our services, so they had never searched us out. Once they found us, they’d say, ‘I didn't know you were here. This is such a great program,’” Elliott noted.

Wharton pointed out that CARES act policies opened community action agency doors to a larger number of people via more liberal qualification requirements. “Initially, we were able to serve families at or below 125% of federal poverty levels,” he said. “Under the CARES Act guidelines, we were able to raise those standards to 200% of federal poverty guidelines, which really was helpful to families who were experiencing poverty for the first time.” He added that his organization launched a COVID awareness media campaign across Mecklenburg County to address vulnerable communities still impacted by high infection and vaccination hesitancy rates among seniors 60 years and older.

For Elliott’s organization, COVID-19 also brought in a first-time donor: The Biddle Foundation, which traditionally supports the arts and educational programs—not homelessness prevention or workforce training. “When they heard about what we were doing, they approached me,” Elliott said. “They gave me $55,000 to keep people in their homes, so we could do rental or mortgage assistance. Mortgage assistance was the big gap because a lot of the federal dollars were for rental assistance.”

Finally, that billion-dollar boost the CARES Act gave community action agencies was both a tool to enhance visibility and validation of the organizations themselves. “It reinforced the notion that community action agencies are an incredible vehicle in times of disaster or economic downturn,” Wharton said. “Community action agencies reach 95% of the nation’s counties, and we are the prime federal anti-poverty program in the nation. That galvanized support for our efforts from both sides of the political aisle.”

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