Long Island's nonprofit community has been active in providing services during disasters before, but the COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike others, one "with no clear end in sight," as the head of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island noted Thursday.
During an hourlong virtual meeting, nearly 90 providers gathered to reflect on the challenges the pandemic has presented, and the successes they've had in meeting them.
The challenges have been formidable, many said. They pointed to significant trauma to manage: not only for members of the community the groups help, but for their staffs, their families and themselves.
"Many of you have lost loved ones," said Rebecca Sanin, president and chief executive of the welfare council, who convened the meeting of the Long Island Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or LIVOAD, a council program. "Many of you have lost staff and have lost clients. Many of you have faced downsizing, and that ever-difficult sense of impossibility and meeting growing needs."
She compared them to diamonds. "And like diamonds, you reflect light," Sanin said. "And in our context, that means you are beacons of hope, and for that you deserve tremendous recognition."
In recognizing "the critical work the nonprofit sector has done," the Rev. Jude Geiger of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington said the past year has been rough, recalling how the virus produced "everyday traumas."
"Normal wasn't working and we can't go back to that normal," Geiger said. "Your work of mutual aid is the path forward," he told the providers.
During a 15-minute video, several nonprofit officials talked about how they had to figure out new ways to continue to provide services to clients during last year's lockdown.
Using technology was key for many.
Karen Boorshtein, president and chief executive of the Family Service League, said "When COVID first hit, the concern was, how do we pivot quickly to continue to meet the needs of our clients without missing a beat? And we did that, through Telehealth and deploying everyone to work remotely, quickly obtaining computers, laptops, whatever was needed to accommodate our staff so they could serve our clients."
Terri Zenobio, director of Vincentian Services of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, wondered how the organization would continue to be able to serve its clients if there were a stay-at-home order that would limit in-person contact. She said three-way conference calls, FaceTime and Zoom communications were used "to maintain the face-to-face interactions that's so important when having neighbors in need feel comfortable, respected and dignified."
Later, during a panel discussion of subcommittee chairs of the LIVOAD, nonprofit executives discussed how the pandemic brought out collaborations that they said should continue.
Jeffrey McQueen, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County, said, "I think we quickly moved out of our silos of being competitive and became a system of collaboration to work together. ... We put together systems practically overnight to service our community."
Michael Haynes, chief government affairs officer of Long Island Cares-The Harry Chapin Food Bank, said partnerships helped the food bank overcome food supply chain disruptions to address food insecurity on the Island. He said food aid increased from 7 million to 8 million pounds before the pandemic to more than 18 millions pounds in 2020.
Uncertainty remains, said Colleen Merlo, chief executive of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness.
"There are just so many unknowns — from new variants coming out, to funding, to thinking about the long-term health consequences, food insecurity consequences. And the unresolved grief that we're going to have to be dealing with as a sector. … We've all faced loss and hardship.
"As a leader of a nonprofit, I've had to care not only for the people we serve, but also for our staff ... while also being a resource to my own family, myself. So I think that's part of the challenge — balancing all of that."