Some nonprofits are weathering the pandemic — for now

Samaritas, AgeWell are using more resources to protect senior populations.
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West Michigan’s nonprofit sector is gearing up to deal with the COVID-19 crisis while still being able to deliver important care to the most vulnerable members of the population.

Sam Beals, CEO of Samaritas, said the organization at this time is fortunate to not have any clients or staff test positive for COVID-19.

“We seek to be CDC compliant and I think we’re there,” Beals said. “Their guidelines change from time to time, so we’re making sure we stay up to date.”

Regular procedures include infection control, hand washing, using masks, daily temperature readings for all residents and staff, as well as discussing signs and symptoms with staff, Beals said.

In total, Samaritas has more than 60 programs in over 40 sites across Michigan, Beals said. Five of these sites are senior living facilities. The organization recognizes the elderly are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, so it is most proactive in those locations, including having a contingency plan if someone tests positive.

“We’re working with all the local professionals and authorities to ensure we are prepared,” Beals said. “We’re also doing similar things with the other populations in foster care, affordable housing, etc.”

Based on Samaritas’ most recent annual report, between 15,000 and 20,000 people take part in the organization’s programs per year, and the group employs just over 1,600 workers.

Beals added Samaritas is not starving for volunteers, even when uncertainty over COVID-19 is keeping most people homebound. The challenge for the organization is not finding volunteers but finding the safest place for them to serve.

“A lot of it comes in creative ways,” said Kelli Dobner, chief advancement officer for Samaritas. “Our COVID care kit, for example — people sometimes find out they bought too much, so they donate gloves and masks, sometimes in the thousands. We‘ve had a lot of outpouring of that type of volunteerism in this time.”

Beals added Samaritas has faced challenges in receiving enough masks, and donations within the last week have been significant in helping with the shortage.

Samaritas also is looking for donor support to help with added costs related to COVID-19 precautions, including transportation, child care and overtime pay, as well as liability insurance, which he predicted would increase because of the pandemic.

At press time, Beals did not have a anticipated cost increase for Samaritas during the outbreak, as the organization is currently tracking expenses through all of its programs.

“We know it’s accumulating quickly,” Beals said. “We assume it’s going to be significant.”

Dobner said Samaritas is looking at a tentative goal of $250,000 to $300,000 to cover predicted costs, including laptops, educational materials and food for staff who are forced to work from home.

“We have many staff working remotely, so they will need the equipment to do that,” Beals said.

AgeWell Services of West Michigan fortunately had an emergency plan in place before COVID-19 was even a topic of household conversation. Executive Director Kris Collee said the organization spent a lot of time forming emergency management procedures because of inclement weather.

“We did think about how we’re going to respond under constraints,” Collee said.

AgeWell operates senior activity and lunch centers throughout Muskegon, Ottawa and Oceana counties, as well as the Meals on Wheels program to deliver 1,600 meals each day to seniors in their three counties.

Like with Samaritas, AgeWell interacts with a portion of the population that is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and the group has put special measures in place for volunteer work, including utilizing existing channels.

“Right now, we’re trying to utilize the current volunteers we have to contribute more, or we tell them to sit back if they’re not comfortable,” Collee said. “We also have partnerships with the Life Circles PACE program and Mercy Health to provide health care workers at no cost to deliver those meals, because they’re already vetted.”

AgeWell currently is not calling for general volunteers, but that could change in the future, Collee said.

AgeWell services seniors who specifically are homebound and in need of community, but social programs like lunch and activity centers have had to be modified to prevent exposure. The organization now implements a curbside model where people can drive up and receive a bundle with enough food for five meals.

“We are an essential service, and with seniors being the most affected by COVID-19, it’s necessary that they have access to proper nutrition,” Collee said. “That’s also why we’re sending out five meals at a time. If they can’t go to the grocery store, it’s good to just put them away for when you need them.”

Collee added she was proud of Meals on Wheels’ response to the COVID-19 crisis. In New York, for example, the regional Meals on Wheels program is still running, and Collee said AgeWell’s partners in Grand Rapids are not slowing down, either.

“Forty percent of the individuals we see say their daily driver is the only contact they have with a human being,” Collee said. “There’s many reasons homebound elderly don’t have those social supports, but that’s why it’s way more than a meal. We’re all dealing with social isolation now, but imagine having that be a part of your every day.”

AgeWell’s census for staff is 95 workers, with 28 being full-time. The group averages about 250 volunteers per year.

Collee added AgeWell is still operating its senior transportation program, which averages about 16,000 one-way drives in Muskegon County every year, but the program has had to drop volunteers to prioritize client safety.

Amid the COVID-19 scare, there also are many perpetrators of fraud against seniors, which AgeWell is looking out for though its elder abuse program, Collee said.

“A couple of weeks ago in the Grand Rapids area we heard of an individual was going around with a sack of potatoes and milk telling people he was with Meals on Wheels,” she said. “We also heard about the ‘American Red Cross’ offering seniors a ‘vaccine’ for COVID-19. Our elders are so vulnerable, especially to financial exploitation.”

To fight back against fraud, AgeWell has developed a task force in Muskegon and Ottawa counties. Safeseniors.info offers resources and information for loved ones to identify signs of fraud and other forms of elder abuse.

AgeWell currently is calling for face masks and additional funding, as well.

“Federal aid is coming but it doesn’t cover everything.” Collee said. “We need unrestricted dollars to continue our programs. We have seen a significant decrease in giving. Whether someone can give $5 or more, anything helps.”

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