Coronavirus tests CommUnity’s crisis services in an already difficult season for nonprofits

CommUnity staff preparing for Project Holiday meal distribution, Dec. 16, 2019. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

In the 50 years since it was founded, CommUnity Crisis Services and Foodbank has never faced a challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic. But the challenges it has faced in the past, and still does on a daily basis, have helped it prepare for the major disruptions COVID-19 will likely bring.

The flood of 2008 forced the nonprofit — then known as the Crisis Center of Johnson County — to temporarily abandon its building, so its workers had to find new ways to provide services.

“We learned a lot, and we have continued to have multiple practices in place to be able to operate in all sorts of disruptions, and offer crisis intervention,” said Sarah Witry, director of services for CommUnity.

The community service organization grew out of the efforts of two University of Iowa freshmen, Kathy Szymoniak Keeley and Carolyn Hock, whose roommate attempted suicide in 1969. After realizing there were no crisis counseling services available in the Johnson County area, the two decided to do something about it. Working with other members of the community, they opened the Crisis Center of Johnson County in 1970.

Crisis intervention is still a major focus of the organization. Trained crisis counselors can be reached at any time of the day by calling (855-325-4296). There are also options for people who are more comfortable talking via text (also 855-325-4296) or prefer an online chat (
According to Witry, in the first five days following the discovery of a COVID-19 case in Iowa, crisis counselors received over 30 calls about the disease.

“Every day we are getting people concerned about the virus,” she said. “We know that people are experiencing anxiety about this. They’re also feeling anxiety about how their lives will continue to function in the midst of disruptions to their work, and to services they rely on.”

“We know that a lot of things that are happening to try to prevent the spread of disease are creating less work for quite a few people who are already vulnerable to food insecurity, or are having trouble paying their bills,” Witry continued. “So we know that we are needed more than ever to provide help with food and financial assistance and more.”

The nonprofit opened its food bank in 1978, and last year, CommUnity provided more than two million pounds of food to people in need. The food bank already has procedures in place that should help as people self-quarantine or try to engage in social distancing, Witry said.

A client can designate someone to pick up food for them. Also, pre-made bags of food are available that can be brought out to clients who prefer not to come inside the food bank.

“But it is better if people come in and shop for themselves,” Witry said. “Research shows there’s less food waste that way, because with pre-made bags people can get items they don’t need or won’t — or cannot — eat.”

The food bank already takes precautions to limit personal contact between shoppers and volunteers and otherwise help prevent the spread of more common diseases, such as the flu. Those procedures are applicable to the coronavirus as well.

Witry said CommUnity also anticipates increased demand for its Basic Needs Program, which can provide financial help to people experiencing difficulty paying for such things as rent, utilities and prescription medicines.

There is, of course, never a good time for a pandemic to occur, but March already is already a difficult time for nonprofits. The first four months of the year are typically the slowest time of the year for donations, CommUnity’s Director of External Relations Michelle Cole explained. Most people make their donations during November and December, and during the first part of the year a certain level of donor fatigue is expected.

“If people are willing and able to financially support our efforts, we can take that funding, stretch it and maximize what we can achieve with it,” Cole said.

“But with the uncertainty of the whole environment really causing anxiety, the most important thing for people to know is we’re here for you,” she added. “We have these services available. Please reach out to us.”

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s new director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 281.

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