A feature from Karen Fox Elwell, Growing Home CEO
March 13, 2020 – a day forever etched into my mind. I drove to work that morning knowing I was about to make one of the hardest decisions of my career to date – would Growing Home close as schools had, transition to fully remote services, or continue to provide in-person services? I had never been so struck by the complex nature of a nonprofit organization. We have both a duty to serve our community while also a duty to protect the health and safety of our staff, volunteers, and community. There was no rule book on how to make this decision, so I looked to our mission, vision, and core values to help guide us. In considering these and our organizational commitment to equity, we ultimately decided to maintain our essential services of food access and housing stability in person while transitioning all other services to a virtual format. As I announced this to our staff, I told them we would re-assess the situation in two weeks.
Now, one year later, we have transformed and adapted many times, and we and our community are forever changed. In a survey this summer of our participants, we learned that 100% of our participants have been impacted by COVID in some way. Ninety percent (90%) have had their employment impacted by COVID, 77% experienced a decrease in income, and 84% have experienced physical effects of stress. Our participants – who are predominantly from communities of color – have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. Black and brown communities have faced higher infection rates. Our community was among those first impacted by layoffs and furloughs and have faced food and housing insecurity like never before. While vaccination rollout is going strong, we have a long road ahead to recovery. I recently heard an estimate that we won’t be back to pre-COVID rates of unemployment until the fourth quarter of 2022! On top of that, we have to remember that getting back to pre-COVID levels of economic recovery is not enough. Even before COVID, we had far too much food and housing insecurity.
Despite the challenges, our community has grown stronger in many ways. Our participants are resilient and have continued to advocate for and work towards food and housing justice and health equity. They are working to spread the word of food access programs and vaccine clinics. They have started a community garden. They have shown up – day after day – to help us distribute food to the community.
Just as our participants have had to tap into their resilience and innovate, so have we as an organization. We first moved to a drive thru food distribution. Then as the winter months drew near, we moved to a model that allowed for appointments while also supporting emergency food needs on a walk-in basis. We needed more space and, thanks to the partnership with the City of Westminster, moved our food distribution operations to the MAC Recreation Center. With COVID levels more under control and vaccination rates increasing, the City is working to re-open the MAC so we will be innovating once again and moving distribution back on-site to Growing Home.
What the pandemic has taught us is that we play a more vital role in food security than we had even understood ourselves. We have recognized opportunities to better stock our pantry with culturally responsive food, to support local food sources, and to be a food pantry by the community for the community. As we engage in strategic planning in 2021 to develop our road map for 2022 and beyond, we have a lot to mull over about what role we continue to play in the food justice movement beyond COVID.
In addition to our food access work, COVID has reaffirmed how vital all of Growing Home’s services are and how well aligned we are with the needs of the community. Due to the pandemic, families have faced immense challenges to housing stability. Our housing stability program is nearing the end of its initial pilot year. We have seen the power of focusing on preventing homelessness and keeping families housed prior to experiencing the trauma of becoming homeless. We look forward to reflecting and evaluating this new program as we determine how to scale it to meet the need in the community.
Additionally, the increased stress of this past year and limitations on activities outside the home have placed new stresses on parents and their parenting approaches. Our Parent Educators in our Parents as Teachers program have remained faithful to their families, meeting virtually one to two times a month and sometimes even more. Our Parent Educators are teaching parents new skills and activities, coaching parents on how to confront different challenges, and navigating parents to different resources in the community.
Growing Home continues to stay apprised of the guidance of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Tri County Health Department, including Adams County’s level on the COVID Dial. We have plans in place for how different levels on the COVID Dial will impact our programs and operations. We look forward to the time when we are in the Protect Our Neighbors phase and can consider more in-person services.
In the meantime, as we continue forward in 2021, we remain committed to our vision of our entire community working together to ensure that children and their families have a place to call home, food on the table, and the opportunities to pursue their dreams. We remain stalwart in our commitment to support strong and resilient families as well as thriving and equitable communities. Each of us, both individually and collectively as an organization, have learned more about being strong, resilient, thriving, and equitable over the past year.
If this resonates with you and would like join us in our work, please consider making a donation.