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Coronavirus pandemic inspires the Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund

Four organizations collaborate to start a fund to help vulnerable residents and the agencies that assist them.

ST. PETERSBURG — Galvanized by needs made more conspicuous and urgent by the coronavirus pandemic, four nonprofits have collaborated to establish a fund to help those affected by racial and socioeconomic disparities in the Tampa Bay area.

The new fund, which will provide such assistance as emergency food, housing, access to telemedicine and food delivery to seniors, is designed to evolve beyond the current pandemic to address future disasters such as hurricanes and even another public health crisis.

The goal, said Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation, is “to help fill critical gaps that are unaddressed by federal, state and local government” and shore up organizations in DeSoto, Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties that help those in need.

Duggan Cooley, CEO of the Pinellas Community Foundation [Duggan Cooley]

In late March, the Pinellas Community Foundation joined with Allegany Franciscan Ministries, Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and United Way Suncoast to create what they’re calling the Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund.

It was launched with a start-up sum of $1 million. An early award of $43,500 was made to Pinellas County, which distributed the money to nonprofits that serve the homeless. The funds were used to retrofit vehicles that take clients to hospitals and coronavirus testing sites and also to provide safe lodging and 14 days of meals for quarantined patients after their discharge from hospitals.

“We recognized this early in the pandemic in terms of what some of the emerging needs might be, specifically around the most vulnerable population,” Daisy Rodriguez, Pinellas County’s director of Human Services, said. “First and foremost was maintaining safety for the providers and the clients, should the need arise to transport someone from one of the shelters to the hospital.”

Nine vehicles were retrofitted with custom-made, airtight shields installed between the driver and client. Nonprofits receiving the funds, among them Pinellas Hope, St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army, were “extremely grateful,” Rodriguez said.

Money from the new Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund was used to retrofit this Directions for Living van to serve the agency's clients. [Directions for Living, Clearwater]

Applications for the fund, which is being managed by the Pinellas Community Foundation, were opened last week. Fundraising is ongoing, with larger gifts coming from foundations and corporations, though donations are also being made by individuals, Cooley said.

Related: Survey of older Pinellas and Pasco residents give advocates a path to follow

Jessica Muroff, CEO of United Way Suncoast, called the partnership of diverse organizations “a wonderful collaboration.”

Jessica Muroff, CEO of United Way Suncoast [Jessica Muroff, CEO of United Way Suncoast]

“And I think the powerful thing is, we’re leveraging our collective resources to make an impact in our community,” she said.

“With this fund, in particular, it’s really focusing on the most vulnerable by race and by socioeconomic status to make sure these families, these individuals, are served. Because, if you look at the job losses — the employment impact of this crisis — it is going to have a huge impact. It is critically important that we mobilize quickly. These families and individuals, many of them are living paycheck to paycheck.”

The nonprofits that provide help also have been negatively affected by the pandemic, Muroff said, adding that they’ve had to cancel fundraisers and many have not been able “to convene in person to provide critical intervention services in the community.”

Cheri Wright-Jones, regional vice president for Allegany Franciscan Ministries, noted that the Resiliency Fund will provide “a mechanism for nonprofits to stay afloat operationally and to continue to assist the community” at this time.

“People, especially in historically vulnerable communities, need support for physical and mental health, basic needs and housing,” she noted in an email. “Health and social service nonprofits have been inundated with requests to support families during this time, when these organizations and their staff — like many small businesses, are also struggling. Local nonprofits are working harder and for longer days than ever, even when they have not been funded to do so.”

In one of its first awards, the Resiliency Fund gave $150,000 to the Pinellas Education Foundation for its Digital Equity project to help provide access to high-speed internet for families with students. The funding became vital when classes went online in response to the health crisis.

“We have purchased broadband devices, a little box that runs off cellular service that gives access to the internet,” said Stacy Baier, CEO of the Pinellas Education Foundation. “We have about 800 now that we started disbursing last week. We are looking to put in another order to get it to about 1,000 units and service.”

"The $150,000 from the Tampa Bay Resiliency Fund is a huge step in us bringing digital equity across the district,” Baier said.

The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, one of the fund’s partners, has been supporting the program for two years.

Randall H. Russell, president and CEO of Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg [Randall H. Russell]

Randall H. Russell, president and CEO of the foundation — which describes itself as working with Pinellas County communities “to eradicate inequality, achieve racial equity to advance health equity, and improve population health” — addressed recent reports showing that black Americans are dying in disproportionate numbers from the coronavirus.

The report came as no surprise, Russell said.

“We certainly saw this coming. We knew the vulnerability based on discrimination,” he said, adding that the new fund will bring discriminatory practices into light in a way that is “focused on resolution ... we hope."

The creators of the fund have worked together before, notably after Hurricane Irma, Cooley said. This time, their collaboration is more formal. “It’s clear what our roles and responsibilities are and the ultimate goals,” he said. “For the future, when we need those funds, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

To donate to the Resiliency Fund, go to: https://pinellascf.org/tbrf/

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