In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, countless Americans have lost their jobs or experienced an extreme loss of income -- and our Greater Chattanooga community is no exception. Before the pandemic reached our city, almost 40% of our community members struggled to make ends meet on a daily basis. It’s safe to assume that number has now increased, and that many of those who were living paycheck-to-paycheck have been thrown into crisis. Facing new or increased instability, many of our neighbors feel hopeless.
Hope comes in many shapes and sizes. In the midst of a widespread financial crisis, hope means having a support system to fall back on. It means maintaining stability, and having the ability to face an uncertain future without worrying about meeting your family’s basic needs. Hope means having the ability to rebuild and recover. This hope has been lost for many Greater Chattanoogans -- but with help, it can be regained.
United Way of Greater Chattanooga launched the Restore Hope Fund to support our neighbors experiencing wage loss or other adverse circumstances as a result of the local COVID-19 crisis. We’ve partnered with a number of community-based nonprofits that are providing immediate, on-the-ground assistance. Individuals in need can approach these organizations for help with things like rent, utility payments, and other areas of financial strain. The Restore Hope Fund partners listen to the needs of these individuals and both connect them with available resources and meet their direct financial needs on a case-by-case basis. These nonprofit agency partners are champions of hope -- they are going above and beyond expectations to be the support system that so many of our neighbors need now more than ever. And working with the Restore Hope Fund is just one of many ways they are doing this.
The Boys and Girls Club of Chattanooga was one of the first agencies to jump onboard and sign on for this partnership. According to Jim Morgan, the organization's CEO, their day-to-day work has shifted substantially away from their regular after-school programming in order to address the COVID-19 crisis. Since their club members cannot currently gather on-site due to social distancing restrictions, The Boys and Girls Club is doing all they can to continue serving the kids they work with. “We’ve basically become a feeding and social work agency,” says Jim, explaining that his staff members are collectively delivering about 1600 meals a day to club members and their families (who relied on the organization to provide those meals on-site before the pandemic). In addition to delivering food daily, staff members are calling and speaking with every club member at least once a week, as well as helping their high school senior club members complete their college application process, including helping them get access to computers or tablets.
As far as their work with Restore Hope Fund, Jim says that the organization receives so many requests for help that “there are over 40 hours of work needed to run this [program] -- basically, this has become a staff member’s full time job.” In the first month of the Fund’s existence, The Boys and Girls Club received about 300 calls requesting help in the wake of job loss due to COVID-19. The staff jumped in head-first, quickly building operational support for this brand-new program. They were able to process and fulfill about 90 requests -- and Jim suspects that the true size of the population in need of assistance is even bigger than what is visible. “It’s hard to ask for money,” he says, “people don’t want to do this. These are people that had jobs and were taking care of themselves and their families… it’s very hard for the general public to understand that so many people really do live from paycheck to paycheck. A huge chunk of America is now being faced with [this reality].” And that’s where the Restore Hope grants come in -- they provide much-needed breathing room for people working hard to get back on their feet. And for the Boys and Girls Club in particular, working with the Fund is providing them with the new and unique opportunity to work with the families of the kids they serve. “We don’t usually get to work with the families, so that is exciting. Healthy kids come from healthy families,” says Jim.
Things are looking pretty similar at The Bethlehem Center, another one of our Restore Hope partner agencies. “We’ve totally switched gears,” says Executive Director Reginald Smith, “we’ve basically become a social services agency.” The biggest difference, says Reginald, is the absence of noise and laughter from the Center’s hallways. Since they can’t run their regular after-school programming in the midst of the pandemic, The Bethlehem Center has pivoted to focus on providing direct relief to the community they serve. And since kids relied on having their after-school meal at the Center, staff members are now keeping the food pantry constantly stocked and driving to deliver those meals to the kids’ homes. The organization is also utilizing the social work training that some staff members have to keep a close eye on the needs of their community.
Much like the Boys and Girls Club, The Bethlehem Center has received so many phone calls requesting help from the Restore Hope Fund that running the program has become a staff member’s full-time job -- they’ve even hired an intern to increase capacity and assist with the process. The Center is seeing huge need around rent assistance, as well as with car payments. According to Reginald, the individuals calling are “the people who were living paycheck to paycheck. And there’s a sadness for them in sharing their stories -- most of these individuals were working and supporting themselves.” As of last Friday, The Bethlehem Center had distributed $16,000 in Restore Hope grants. And while a single Restore Hope grant is not a comprehensive solution in terms of the big picture, Reginald says it’s a great and necessary help for these individuals as they prepare to face life after the COVID-19 crisis.
When The Bethlehem Center recently called an individual to let him know that he had been approved to receive Restore Hope funding, he responded, “this is a blessing. You have no idea how much this means -- now I can focus on paying next month and I won't owe one thousand dollars. I went back to work on a rotating shift, so this helps out so much!" Our partners are championing hope for Greater Chattanoogans by being the support system they need and helping them to bridge the gap between crisis and stability. We need every member of our community to follow their example and step up beyond expectations. We all have a role to play as our city recovers from the COVID-19 crisis -- we all have the ability to be champions of hope, now and in the future.