This article originally was published in the November issue of Florida Trend magazine.
Fred Rogers said his mother told him that in times of trouble and despair to “look for the helpers.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many helpers — from doctors and nurses risking their lives caring for patients (“COVID-19 Heroes,” pages 12-28) to grocery store employees, farmworkers, law enforcement officers, delivery drivers and other workers for whom staying home wasn’t an option.
As the economy unraveled in 2020 amid mass layoffs and uncertainty, an army of helpers in Florida’s nonprofit sector — Florida Trend’s 2020 Floridian of the Year — kicked into high gear, delivering food to the hungry, offering financial assistance to the unemployed and providing emotional support, guidance and other services.
Nearly 40% of non-profits have experienced an increased demand for services over the past several months, according to a survey by the Florida Nonprofit Alliance. Many answered the call even as the pandemic created big challenges for their organizations — from shrinking pools of volunteers to challenges in raising money.
Here is a sampler of the organizations and groups that have stepped up during the pandemic.
Calls to the Heart of Florida United Way’s 211 information and referral crisis line — which covers Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties — were four times higher than normal last spring. “It’s still about 50% to 100% higher on any given day than what our normal volume is. We’re getting about 1,100 to 1,500 calls” each day, says Jeff Hayward, president and CEO of the Heart of Florida United Way.
The non-profit has partnered with local governments to get federal Cares Act funds to those in need. It worked with utilities to make sure residents didn’t lose their electric or water service. It also launched a $1.9-million COVID-19/ALICE Recovery Fund to provide rent, mortgage and utility assistance to Central Florida’s “asset limited, income constrained, employed” (ALICE) population, who live paycheck to paycheck. Roughly 33% of Floridians fall into the ALICE category and have suffered disproportionately amid the COVID-19 crisis.
The Heart of Florida United Way’s COVID-19/ALICE Recovery Fund has received $17 million in requests from 14,000 individuals. The assistance has provided a lifeline for people like Frank, a Central Florida father of two furloughed from his job as a restaurant manager in March (he requested his last name not be published). His family exhausted its savings within weeks, and he’s been scraping by filling out online surveys in exchange for gift cards. His first unemployment check didn’t come for two months, and his stimulus check was delayed four weeks because the IRS mistakenly sent it to the bank account of a tax preparation firm he’d previously used to file his taxes. Meanwhile, “the bills kept creeping up,” he says.
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Frank says the month’s worth of rent, water and electricity (approximately $1,500) he got through the COVID/ALICE recovery fund “helped tremendously,” buying him more time. He wants others to know that it’s OK to seek help. “Waking up and not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow, just the uncertainty is the toughest thing,” he says.
FOOD PANTRIES ...
Under a brilliant blue September sky, a couple dozen volunteers in masks sort cans of Vienna sausages, bags of rice, containers of peanut butter and jelly and other food outside the Metro West Church of The Nazarene in Orlando. More than 400 cars snake around the church’s parking lot and onto busy North Apopka Vineland Road. Some have been waiting since before sunrise for a trunk-load of food from the church’s Herald of Hope Food Pantry.
Before COVID, the church’s food pantry served about 150 to 200 people a month. Now, 400 to 500 cars driven by people of all ages and backgrounds show up every other Saturday for food. Solange St. Louis, a church volunteer, greets each driver — especially newcomers — with a smile and hello. Many are uncomfortable asking for help, she says. When she sees kids inside the car, she throws in an extra bag of rice or two. “It goes fast,” she says.
Dave Krepcho, president and CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, which supplies the food for the Herald of Hope Food Pantry and more than 500 other “feeding partners” across a six-county region, says the demand for food assistance, like so many things in 2020, is unprecedented. “I’ve been through many hurricanes with disaster relief over the years, and this outweighs them all,” Krepcho says.
Since March, Second Harvest has been distributing enough food for 300,000 daily meals. A button on the group’s website that people can click to find a nearby food pantry got about 63 clicks a day prepandemic. By mid-March, it was averaging 1,200 clicks. “That eventually started to come down,” Krepcho says, but has trended up as furloughs and layoffs spiked in the late summer and early fall.
It’s a similar tale across the state. Feeding America, a national organization that runs 200 food banks across the country, estimates that 18.7% of Floridians — nearly 4 million people — are hungry or food insecure in the wake of COVID. The Manna Food Bank in Pensacola will feed about 35,000 people this year, up from 19,499 in 2019. Hurricane Sally, which dumped more than 20 inches of rain on the region in mid-September, “complicated things even more,” says DeDe Flounlacker, executive director of Manna.
Throughout it all, the non-profit has had to make do with fewer resources. Manna’s warehouse, once staffed by 85 people, had just 11 workers after the group asked high-risk groups of volunteers 65 and older to stay home. The group also suspended food donations from the public and closed its three pantries. “We didn’t know how long (COVID) would live on surfaces at the time but also to limit exposure of our team to the public … because if one of us gets sick and goes down, it’s very possible all of us will have to quarantine, so I really tried to be conscious of that,” says Flounlacker.
Another hit came in May when the National Association of Letter Carriers canceled its annual food drive, which normally provides about 80,000 pounds of food. With fewer donations, Manna has spent about $100,000 this year on food.
There’s also been an uptick in demand in programs that serve children. The number of kids enrolled in Manna’s Tummy Bundle program — which sends kids who attend the Boys & Girls Club after-school program at Montclair Elementary School home with a bag of food over the weekend — has more than tripled. A similar program that provides emergency food supplies to homeless youth in the Santa Rosa County School District now serves 25 children, compared to 12 earlier.
Manna has also partnered with restaurants, giving them food to distribute to laid-off workers and those working fewer hours.
“Generally we’re not going to see waitstaff or bartenders at our pantry or in need, and suddenly they needed the help. That’s what COVID has done, created a whole new population of people who need help,” says Flounlacker.
.. AND CLINICS
Jennifer Yeagley, CEO of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, says that a busy day pre-COVID might see 120 people coming to its food pantry. Today, the average minimum number of people needing food is 320 a day. The new-patient load at the health center, which provides services for those who don’t qualify for Medicaid but don’t make enough to afford health insurance, has grown by 35%. Yeagley says the group’s shelter is already at capacity.
Throughout the crisis, the St. Petersburg Free Clinic has surveyed people in line for food to see what brought them there. “Back in April, when we initially did the surveying, 69% reported they had lost jobs or wages because of COVID. In September, when we asked the same question, we were still at 52%,” she says. Roughly half had never visited a food pantry before.
Yeagley predicts continued high demand. “We expect to be in crisis mode for the full fiscal year and as we go, we’re just going to kind of be regrouping quarter by quarter,” she says.
When COVID-19 shutdowns went into effect last March, calls to Hubbard House’s hotline dropped. Gail Patin, CEO of the Jacksonville domestic violence center, suspects that victims were essentially trapped at home with their abusers, unable to reach out for help.
After the initial quiet period that accompanied stay-at-home orders, calls increased about 5%, Patin says, and referrals from law enforcement are up. The Jacksonville sheriff’s department reported a 20% uptick in domestic violence incidents in April. Through October, there have been a dozen killings. Among the victims was Ebony Nicholas, a 22-year-old mother of two who was shot and killed by an ex-boyfriend at the Jacksonville Amazon fulfillment center.
To provide new avenues for help, Hubbard House created a 24-hour text hotline so victims could reach out discreetly. The non-profit also launched virtual services for victims. Amid the pandemic, “a lot were hesitant to come to our outreach center and see advocates face to face,” Patin says. Now, they can log onto a HIPAA-compliant platform and speak with a victim advocate to learn about services, make a safety plan or get counseling. The teleservices have expanded access for clients without transportation, and Patin plans to continue them indefinitely. “We had to do it because of COVID, but now we’re finding out, wow, this is really working for some survivors,” Patin says.
Fundraising has been challenging. The group had to cancel its annual fundraising walk in the spring, which usually nets about $100,000, and it has shifted its October domestic violence awareness month breakfast online. “We don’t know exactly how that will impact our fundraising strategies. I will say Jacksonville tends to be very supportive of Hubbard House, and they have heard the message that domestic violence has been on the rise due to the isolation of the pandemic,” she says. “We still have our private donors who give to us. None of us knows what the future looks like.”
When the Great Recession hit in 2008, Ron Weaver, a Tampa real estate attorney, started strategizing with other local executives in the industry. “We had like 30,000 people out of work in real estate in Tampa Bay. I said, ‘What were we going to do about it. What were we going to do for those hurting out there?’ "
With support from the CREW Tampa Bay, a local group of women in commercial real estate, and others, Weaver formed Real Estate Lives. It held meetings every two weeks for anyone seeking work — and through a combination of counseling, free training workshops and networking “helped them find a job wherever it could be found.”
Real Estate Lives, which helped about 5,500 people, is busy again helping another crush of dislocated workers try to find jobs via virtual job fairs and its networking sessions. The group also offers a 10-week, virtual course called Transition Masters, which provides those who are actively seeking work with mock networking and mock interview practice, compensation negotiation tips and help with social media. Despite the moniker, Real Estate Lives is not just for people in the real estate industry. Anyone can join, says Weaver, and the services are free.
The pandemic has proved especially challenging for organizations whose work revolves around relationships, and Big Brothers Big Sisters Northwest Florida is still negotiating the terrain. At the beginning, the agency shifted to virtual interviews of potential “bigs,” or adult mentors, and “littles,” kids in need of a mentor. So-called “match meetings,” where mentors and children first meet, also went online, as did mentoring sessions.
Over time, volunteers who feel comfortable and kids with approval from a parent or guardian have returned to in-person mentoring that meets CDC guidelines. Some bigs, especially older volunteers, don’t feel comfortable yet, says President and CEO Paula Shell — and there’s been an increase in “closures,” where a mentoring relationship is terminated early.
Shell worries about the mental toll the pandemic is taking on everyone, especially the kids. She says she has seen her own “little sister,” Hope, struggle with virtual schooling and the shut-in lifestyle. It’s the safest choice for Hope’s 90-year-old great-grandfather, who’s raising her and her brother — but it’s not the same as being in class and requires a high degree of focus and self-determination. “I’ve seen the stress levels weigh her down,” says Shell, who tries to help ease the burden with daily virtual check-ins to help Hope stay on top of her schoolwork.
Shell worries about the hundreds of other kids her organization serves across the Florida Panhandle. “If the bulk are like what I am witnessing with Hope, then our kids are in trouble. I just hope and pray that we get out of this soon so that we can get back to maybe the way things were,” she says. “Children in general out there are needing connectivity more than ever right now because they haven’t been getting it. They go into a depression, all kinds of things. We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg with it all.”
Studies show that only about 5% of individuals eligible to donate blood actually do so — and finding them in the midst of social distancing has been difficult.
Pre-COVID, LifeSouth Community Blood Centers in Gainesville counted local college campuses, high schools and large employers as key spots for blood drives. But shutdown orders largely eliminated those venues. Laura Bialeck, the blood bank’s community development coordinator for North Florida, recalls reaching out to churches and retail centers early in the pandemic to find places to park the non-profit’s four blood mobiles — “not that the business was necessarily open, but just a place that’s high-traffic, where people could see us,” she says. “That’s how we managed for a while.”
In late March, after Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued a statement calling blood donations “safe” and “essential,” donors started showing up at LifeSouth’s centers. There was also an uptick in traffic after the centers began testing donors to see if they had COVID-19 antibodies. “People were really interested in that,” Bialeck says. “Of course, we’re doing the testing because we were desperate for convalescent plasma donors.”
Convalescent plasma, which contains antibodies from the blood of people who’ve recovered from COVID-19, has shown promise in helping others recover. Bialeck says when centers started testing donors in June, only 2% were testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies. By the time University of Florida students began arriving back in town, the percentage had risen to around 12%.
Challenges remain, however. While blood mobiles have returned to UF’s campus, they can’t set up blood drives inside dorms as they used to, and the number of students on campus is still lower than in the past. Nationwide Insurance’s decision to vacate its offices and have employees work from home was also a big hit. LifeSouth used to send its blood mobile there for a week every other month and usually got 150 to 160 donors.
The demand for blood, meanwhile, which had dipped for a while as hospitals suspended elective surgeries, has resumed. When Bialeck spoke to FLORIDA TREND in early October, the blood bank was “desperately in need of O-type blood.”
Mental Health Services
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, the organization in Hillsborough County that answers local calls to the 211 community services line and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, logged more than 10,000 calls from the end of February through October from people affected by the pandemic. The suicide prevention lifeline alone saw a 17% increase in calls in June through August compared to the same period in 2019.
The Crisis Center provides callers with emotional support and connects them to community services.
Meanwhile, the center’s TransCare Medical Transportation, a provider of ambulance and medical transport in Hillsborough, collected more than 11,000 COVID-19 test samples from individuals via a nasal swab at multiple coronavirus testing sites in Hillsborough.
Financial support came from the county, Suncoast Credit Union, Bank of America, Florida Blue, TECO, Gries Investment Funds, United Way Suncoast and others.
The Osceola Council on Aging’s adult day care program provides supervised care and supervision for roughly 78 people, most of whom are elderly and have dementia. It also operates a “congregate dining club,” transporting seniors to five sites around the county, where they can share a meal and socialize with others. When COVID hit, the organization shifted its dining club participants into its Meals on Wheels program and sent its certified nursing assistants to the homes of their daycare clients. “That was a way for us to still keep that touchpoint, for them to have some consistency,” says Wendy Coschignano-Ford, president and CEO.
The pandemic forced the group — the largest provider of social services in Osceola County — to rethink and retool many of its programs. It used to have people come in to apply for help from its Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program. Now, people can go online to fill out forms and upload the required documentation to qualify for help paying their utility bills. It also transitioned its rental assistance program to the web-based programs. Before the pandemic, the non-profit was doling out about $50,000 to $60,000 a month in utility and rental assistance. “As soon as COVID broke out, we were doing upward of $250,000 to $260,000 a month — and it’s still continuing,” says Coschignano-Ford.
At the height of lockdowns, the group’s Meals on Wheels program — which normally delivers 10,000 meals a month — delivered 45,000 meals. As of October, the program was still providing about 35,000 meals a month. Finding enough drivers to deliver the food proved challenging. “People were starting to get their unemployment, and they were getting the $600 stimulus, so it was so hard to recruit people,” she says.
“We just pulled together. It’s what we do,” she says.
HELP FROM THE (SALVATION) ARMY
As the pandemic and lockdown took hold in March, youth programs closed in West Palm Beach. An exception: The Salvation Army’s Northwest Community Center. It shut down for just a week to sanitize the facility and then not only opened its doors but also more than doubled its hours, going from an after-school program to running from seven in the morning to night. “We knew if we closed our doors there would be kids who would be negatively impacted,” says Maj. James Hall, an area commander for Palm Beach County. Some kids had no wifi at home. Some would have no supervision as parents had to work. “We wanted to make sure no parent had to lose their job to stay home with the child,” Hall says.
The Salvation Army stepped up and adjusted in the pandemic. Its Center for Hope normally provides housing and services for up to 24 homeless veterans. It also has six apartments for homeless families and also provides housing for people transitioning out of the federal prison system. It stayed open as well, giving 150 people a place to stay.
Typically, the Army works with 115 people — on site in housing and off site with support services — released by the federal Bureau of Prisons. In the pandemic, as the bureau lowered the population density in facilities, the Army increased its capacity to work with 200 newly released people.
The Army’s entire county corrections program staff fell sick with the virus. Two were hospitalized; all recovered. Other Army staff took their place. Hall moved his office to the program site for two weeks. “We trust God to keep us safe,” he said.
The list of good work goes on. When schools canceled commencements, the Army organized a graduation parade on flatbed trucks for high school grads. “That’s a big milestone in a community where you have a 15% to 20% and higher dropout rate,” Hall says. Food distribution converted to a drive-through approach. Funding from the Laura & Isaac Perlmutter Foundation and the Nelson & Claudia Peltz Family Foundation purchased food that Salvation Army vendor Sysco packaged into pre-sorted pallets. Some non-profits had food but needed a site from which to distribute, so the Army opened a site in the Northwest facility. “We had lines of cars sometimes three to five miles long come through our drive-through,” Hall says. For the county Emergency Operations Center and Department of Health, meals were carried to the homes or hotel rooms of people quarantined because of COVID or other communicable disease. Assistance with rent and utilities was increased.
All told, from March to September, the Army provided 51,547 meals, delivered 513 meals to homes, provided 14,418 nights of housing and debit and gift cards to 40 families. Hall says those numbers understate things as volunteers sometimes don’t record all they do. Meanwhile, the Army in the county dispatched its canteen and disaster-response truck and volunteers to help with storm aftermath in Florida’s Panhandle and Texas. “We’ve been running ragged,” Hall says.
Finances have been tough. The Quantum Foundation, the Community Foundation, the Town of Palm Beach United Way and others donated $192,362 for COVID-19 relief. Volunteer time and service equaled another $115,600. Among the volunteers: Army employees. “Some of my staff would clock out and then they would come back and volunteer and make things happen,” he says.
Between the Army’s Family Stores being shut down by government order and a drop in donations, the Salvation Army in Palm Beach and surrounding counties estimates an overall loss of $2 million in donations and higher expenses so far. Hall hoped for an extremely good Christmas kettle program, even though stores restrict access and shoppers are online. “I firmly believe that when people know what we’re doing, they will support us,” he says.
— By Mike Vogel, Florida Trend
By The Numbers
Florida’s non-profit sector is similar in size to the state’s construction and manufacturing industries, which employ 6.6% and 5.2% of the population, respectively.
Florida’s 94,000-plus non-profits …
- Directly employ more than 629,000, or 6.5% of Florida’s workforce
- Have an annual payroll of $33 billion
- Hold assets of $259.7 billion
- Generate $105 billion in annual revenue
- Pay an average hourly wage of $20.21 — 136% of the state’s minimum wage ($8.56)