Leaders say pandemic brought community together to help each other weather crisis
Yet when facing our darkest hours, many sprang into action to help those most in need.
Allyson Vaulx, vice president of development and communication for the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, said both need and support during the pandemic were unprecedented.
“2020 was a year nobody planned for budget wise or otherwise,” Vaulx said.
The food bank was already in a position where it was planning for growth. The agency provided 5 million meals in 2019 and expected to serve 9 million in 2020. Instead that number climbed to 17 million meals fueled by the emergency created by the pandemic.
“When the pandemic first hit, we were concerned, (but) the need grew immediately,” Vaulx said. Workers were laid off, and people began to quarantine even before the mandates and ultimate shutdown.
Immediately with that, individuals and companies started to reach out to the food bank and ask how they could help, she said. Others simply sent along donations and other resources to help the agency prepare for what was to come.
Vaulx said the support was unexpected but welcome.
“We saw an unprecedented level of giving,” Vaulx said. “There is need, (and) there is increased demand, (and) right with it, the community rallied.”
A giving nation
Total charitable giving before the pandemic was predicted to increase by 4.8% in 2020 and by 5.1% in 2021, according to the Philanthropy Outlook compiled by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Amir Pasic, Eugene R. Temple Dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, said surveys show that, in times of trouble and economic strife, people tend to step up and support human services causes like food banks and housing assistance while nonprofits in the arts and humanities tend to not do so well.
“There really has been a kind of surge of response by Americans to COVID itself and the kind of need it created because of the economic slowdown,” Pasic said. People also were stepping up in response to some of the inequities COVID brought to light. Some people saw little to no change to their economic situations, as front-line workers often in lower-paying jobs bore the brunt of the economic hardship.
Community foundations across the country created COVID-specific funds to aid in the response to the pandemic. The funds allowed them to use their knowledge of the community to connect dollars from donors who wanted to give more directly to assist those impacted by the pandemic.
“Americans when there’s an emergency tend to want to respond to help those in need,” Pasic said. “People across the income spectrum want to help each other.”
Financial giving is tied to the economy and how people are doing financially. While many during the pandemic suffered extreme economic hardships, others across a variety of sectors did not.
The stock market largely recovered, and people’s wealth remained intact.
“The formal stuff tracks pretty closely with how people’s income is doing (and whether) they have enough to share,” Pasic said.
Giving by American individuals and households was predicted to increase by 4.4% in 2020 and 4.7% in 2021, according to the Philanthropy Outlook. Giving by foundations also was predicted to increase by 6.3% in 2020 and by 6.6% in 2021.
“We see human service organizations receive more in giving during difficult economic times,” Pasic said. “(The pandemic was) like nothing experienced in living memory, (and) we certainly hadn’t seen such a widespread emergency since (World War II).”
Mutual assistance — neighbors helping neighbors, getting groceries to people, and making sure they keep their local businesses and restaurants going — is harder to quantify, he said.
“I think we all kind of learned different ways of interacting with each other,” Pasic said. The effect of informal philanthropy was visible in those efforts.
“One of the stories of COVID response was kind of an overall solidarity that American’s showed in trying to help each other, despite the fact we are living in some extremely polarizing political times,” he said.
Vaulx said the food bank always has had generous donors and partners. Increased support from Feeding America helped prepare the agency for what was to come, and it brokered and secured resources on the food bank’s behalf to help it meet demand. She said the agency also had an expectation the community would step in and provide support, and it did.
“Never did we imagine it would be at the level that it happened,” Vaulx said, adding that giving has continued into 2021. The agency could not have budgeted to serve as many as it did in 2020, where an estimated 650,000 individuals tapped the food bank for nutrition assistance.
In prior years, an average of 25,000 people used the food bank. Numbers of those seeking service are no longer as high as they were during the pandemic, she said, but they are still higher than in 2019.
According to the Philanthropy Outlook, corporate giving was predicted to rise in both 2020 (0.4%) and 2021 (1.4%). Local businesses say giving is just part of their corporate culture.
Jeff Strack, president and CEO of Strack & Van Til in Highland, said during the COVID period starting last year into this year, the grocer was fortunate enough to help many organizations and causes get through the pandemic.
Agencies such as the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, the Salvation Army and the Lake Area United Way were beneficiaries of the company’s roundup program. Customers are given the option of rounding up their bills to the next whole dollar with the money raised benefiting a particular cause.
“Our customers are fantastic with roundup, (and) during this pandemic, they really stepped up to help countless times,” Strack said. Oftentimes that help was measured in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, and in most cases, mirrored or was stronger than roundup drives before the pandemic.
Strack & Van Til was fortunate in a way, Strack continued. Grocery stores were essential businesses throughout the pandemic, and one place where people, while limiting their visits, still came to shop, both in person and through contactless pickup.
There are always worthy causes seeking assistance through the roundup program. The team at Strack & Van Til review each request before determining what causes to assist. The effort builds on the precedent set by company founders who believed the business should be a good community partner.
“In some respects, how we looked at the pandemic didn’t change that,” Strack said.
Carolyn Saxton, executive director of the Legacy Foundation, said her agency saw great need, a surge in support and a partnership among normally insular organizations to help funnel resources in a way to quickly best serve those most in need.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Saxton said the foundation was getting requests from numerous organizations seeking assistance for equipment they might need to have a safe environment for their employees and those who patronize their businesses.
The Legacy Foundation responded quickly to those requests by forming partnerships with entities like the Foundations of East Chicago and the Crown Point Community Foundation. They jointly established an emergency response fund managed by Legacy and swiftly raised about $1 million to fulfill those types of needs, Saxton said. Legacy formed a separate partnership with the John Anderson Foundation in Valparaiso.
She said the partnerships allowed the different foundations to funnel their resources more quickly to organizations because Legacy already had relationships with many of them.
It became apparent early in the pandemic that food insecurity would be a real issue, Saxton said.
“People lost their jobs, (and) they didn’t have the finances to be able to go out and buy food,” she said. “People who maybe normally were able to manage on a day-to-day basis were thrust into this crisis situation, (so) we had a lot of requests for food.”
The three foundations met virtually on a weekly basis to review applications and award funding.
“We probably had anywhere from 20 to 30 requests each week,” Saxton said.
Weekly meetings turned into monthly meetings as the crisis began to subside.
“What we have seen in this process really is the coming together of a number of funders to really look at the needs and make decisions about how best to spend the monies we’ve been able to raise,” Saxton said.
Saxton said the end to federal COVID relief unemployment benefits June 19 meant more people likely would face food insecurity. Requests began to ebb in a certain way around December, giving the foundation the opportunity to help fund efforts to get the vaccine to the public.
Legacy provided funding to the Lake County and Gary health departments.
“People stepped up,” she said.
Corporations that normally would have supported one of Legacy’s annual meetings instead was redirected to pandemic-related funds. Other businesses would call and say thanks for doing a great job, and that they were sending funding.
Early in the pandemic, Aaron McDermott and his firm Latitude Commercial in Crown Point were among those businesses that stepped up.
McDermott said he has many connections in the restaurant industry through the leases and sales of commercial property.
“It came to our attention Sysco foods had a lot of perishables they were trying to get rid of,” McDermott said. With restaurants shut down due to the pandemic, the food that would normally be used for diners had no place to go, and the distributor did not have the necessary access to charitable organizations that could best get the food into the hands of families in need.
McDermott coordinated with the Salvation Army, TradeWinds Services and the city of Crown Point to provide tons of perishable goods. Food was delivered directly to the Salvation Army, who in turn provided food to St. Jude House, local churches and other nonprofits. The business partnered with the city of Crown Point to conduct a contactless drive-through food distribution at Bulldog Park in the city.
Volunteers helped distribute 285 gallons of milk, 5,130 dozen eggs, 47,000 pounds of onions and another 56,000 pounds of potatoes, among other items.
Data drive collaboration was key to getting the food to those in need.
“I think a new way of thinking needs to happen how to collaborate and help fix these issues before they become issues,” McDermott said.
Anthony Contrucci, senior vice president of community relations for Centier Bank, said giving back and supporting the community has been the company’s mantra since its founding 126 years ago.
“The pandemic came on so quickly, (and) in reflecting on all we have been through collectively, it really is incredible the way in many cases it brings out the best,” Contrucci said.
During the pandemic, the company was able to tell its employees they would not lose their jobs.
The bank also participated heavily in the Payroll Protection Program loans, connecting small businesses with hundreds of millions in emergency financing.
Historically the bank tries to be as broad as possible with its giving, but the pandemic caused it to be more focused on specific areas like food and shelter, Contrucci said, providing gifts to all the food banks in its service area.
The bank also instituted a state-wide random acts of kindness program, which gave branches the budget to do something special in their communities such as surprising local first responders with meals and dropping off gifts at the various Boys & Girls Clubs. Employees also assisted with virtual telethons raising funds for various nonprofits.
“We wanted to create meaningful impact,” Contrucci said.