Pandemics Are Not for the Faint of Heart

On March 5, 2020, I headed to Boston to meet a friend for the long weekend we take together every other year. Since this trip happens infrequently and since she was travelling from North Carolina and I was coming from Vermont, we chose to keep our plans despite some news stories about the Coronavirus. After all, it was just a strain of the flu, right?

Two weeks later, I was working from home. As I type this in late sumer, I still am.

As I returned from Boston, it quickly became clear that life as I knew it would not be the same and it would be far worse for those who were already at-risk, living paycheck to paycheck or without any paycheck at all.  Let’s face it, no one anticipated the massive impact this virus would have on practically every facet of our lives: work, school, health care, recreation, social services. All of it.

By late March, the reality hit hard. Everyone, it seemed, was scrambling to determine the best course of action: How to help? What to do?

At National Life, our vision is to bring peace of mind to everyone we touch and we do that by living our values of do good, be good, and make good. We consider ourselves Do Gooders and do what we can to help others, including those in the Vermont and Texas communities where our employees live.

The first and biggest issue was hunger. As people lost their jobs and children were not in school, they no longer had access to nutritious food. Plus, we learned many food shelves closed since, at least in Vermont, they’re run by volunteers who are over the age of 60, a high-risk group for the virus. 

It’s gratifying how people come together in the face of adversity. Vermont mobilized resources quickly and within days made meals available to any child up to age 18, even coordinating at-home delivery if needed. In Texas, the North Texas Food Bank declined volunteer help, offering to pay those who were laid off instead to get food out to those who needed it.

Despite efforts like this, the need for hunger relief continued to grow.

In early April, National Life joined forces with other organizations and funders by contributing $100,000 each to both the Vermont and North Texas Community Foundation’s Covid-19 Relief Funds. These donations combined with others allowed us to exponentially increase our impact.

We also offered nonprofits who were in the process of applying for general grants through our Foundation the chance to revise their applications to reflect the new challenges presented by Covid-19. In addition, we extended the deadline to apply. Many did update their request since every one was impacted or expected to be. We expedited funding for those who provided support for basic needs with a focus on food, shelter, mental health resources, domestic violence support and economic recovery. All in, we donated $1,195,950.  

While monetary donations are important, we knew there were other ways we could help.

It started with listening.

We heard local restaurants were laying off their workers and worried they would never reopen. We also heard the homeless population in shelters needed to be relocated to individual hotel rooms to keep them and others safe from the virus. That’s when we learned of a program called Neighbors Helping Neighbors started by another insurance company in Montpelier, Union Mutual. We wanted in.

Neighbors Helping Neighbors was a program through local restaurants that sponsored lunches delivered to frontline workers and the homeless. It was truly a win-win. 

“I’d really like to thank you for your support during this hard time, [you’ve] really helped us here at Langdon Street keep our doors open!” emailed David Thomas, co-owner of the Langdon Street Tavern.

Since helping end childhood hunger is National Life’s corporate cause, we had plans in the works to build, install and stock our first Do Good Cupboard. That’s a cupboard along a public sidewalk where anyone who needs nonperishable food can go at any time of the day or night and take what he or she needs. And donors can leave food, as well.

Those plans came to a screeching halt once we all were sent home to work. But as hunger spiked and we heard about neighbors who found themselves needing charitable food but avoiding it due to stigma or inaccessibility, we knew we had to do something.

By the end of April, our first Cupboard was up.

As my colleague, Jess, stocked it for the first time, a woman approached her asking for a protein shake. Jess handed her one, explaining that’s exactly what the Cupboard is for. When I restocked it a few weeks ago, another woman approached and explained that her daughter was an unemployed, single mom of four children. “Times are tough,” she sighed as she reached for diapers, baby food, and pasta.

Time marched slowly on. We heard about an urgent need for devices to help isolated clients suffering from anxiety and depression connect with telehealth resources. A quick email to our colleagues in IT resulted in dozens of refurbished laptops being donated to Washington County Mental Health Services (WCMHS) and Prevent Child Abuse Vermont.       

“Wow. Just wow. I really don’t know what to say other than I am personally blown away by this, totally moved and actually verklempt,” said John Caceres, Communications and Development Director of WCMHS. “I was on a leadership call and let my colleagues know, fighting back the water in my eyes. Similarly, they were blown away…thank you!”

One of the most valuable resources our Do Gooders have donated during the pandemic is their time. In July, a handful of our colleagues in Texas had a “remote but together” volunteer activity to benefit Vogel Alcove, a child care center for homeless children in Dallas. They assembled “Bye-Bye Bags” for children to take with them as they leave the center for the day.

Vogel explained, “Many of our families have a long commute from Vogel Alcove to their shelter, especially when riding public transportation. The snack bags keep children satiated and occupied on this journey.”

Unfortunately, the need is not over. As the pandemic continues, we’ll keep listening and working to figure out how we can best help during this extraordinary time.

If you’d like to help your neighbors here are some suggestions:

  • Volunteer. Many nonprofits have activities you can do safely in your home or on site but physically distanced.
  • Donate money. Charitable organizations are struggling since major fundraisers have been cancelled or have gone virtual. Don’t think you need to donate a lot of money. Every dollar makes a difference. For example, foodbanks can provide three meals from a $1 donation thanks to the resources they have.
  • Listen. Be aware of what the needs are in your community. Can you sew masks? Share food from your garden? Send letters to those isolated in nursing homes? There are so many options to do good, many of which only take some creativity or time.