The hardest-hit: How nonprofits rise to the challenge of COVID-19

Deep in the pandemic, community-based organizations share how they help vulnerable populations.

Supporting the most vulnerable

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on everyday life for people around the world. Many have sheltered in place by choice or order, staying in their homes for days and weeks, only leaving to work or get food or medicine.

Now imagine that you don’t have a place to call home.

This scenario is real for the growing number of people served by Chicago nonprofit Breakthrough, which runs two shelters for people experiencing homelessness and supports over 11,000 people through its food bank. When COVID-19 hit, Breakthrough staff feared an outbreak among guests in the shelters, Associate Director Bradley Troast says.

“With close living quarters, many people with underlying conditions, mental and behavioral health issues, there’s limited access to health care if you were to get sick,” Troast says. “It’s a very vulnerable population.”

Love Beyond Walls: Letting love flow

Breakthrough is just one of 26 nonprofits benefitting from AbbVie’s COVID-19 Community Resilience Fund. The $5 million in total funding supports each nonprofit’s fight against the virus, focused on helping frontline health care workers and vulnerable populations in hard-hit communities.

Four of these organizations detail how AbbVie grants helped them bring life-saving services and support to people in critical need around the globe.

Breakthrough: A new normal to keep the doors open

An AbbVie grant enabled Breakthrough to purchase personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene items, including masks, soap and toothbrushes. With many sanitizing and distancing measures in place since March, fast forward to today and there have been no COVID-19 cases at either of Breakthrough’s shelters.

Now, staff focus on best serving people within the confines of Illinois’ COVID-19 restrictions, among some of the strictest in the United States that includes two separate stay-at-home orders. This means finding alternatives to critical programs like a community meal prepared by volunteers – instead, Breakthrough used funding from AbbVie and others to buy meals from local restaurants, providing nearly 9,900 meals from March through June and boosting local businesses.

Despite changes to community activities and meals and the necessity of social distancing, people who stay at Breakthrough still feel it’s a place where they can relax, Troast says.

“It makes me appreciate the men and women who work in our shelters and how they’ve adapted,” he says. “This has been a great effort.”

Boston Medical Center: A place to rest and recover

In another major U.S. city, health care officials at Boston Medical Center (BMC) braced for a surge of COVID-19 cases last spring. BMC leaders knew the local homeless population would be disproportionately affected by the virus, with no place to recuperate and quarantine.

An infusion of funding from AbbVie supported a creative solution: Temporarily reclaim BMC’s vacant East Newton Pavilion, which it sold to the state in 2018. Plans to transform the structure into a new psychiatric hospital were placed on hold, and instead BMC converted it into a recovery area carefully laid out for infection control, staffed with medical specialists and equipment, beds, furniture, food and drinks.

Time was of the essence to get the unit up and running, says Miriam Komaromy, MD, FACP, DFASAM, Medical Director at Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction and clinical lead for the pavilion. Just two weeks after gaining access to the pavilion, BMC opened the doors.

About 225 COVID-19 positive people without homes took respite there during an 8-week period. Not only were they able to recover from the virus, many were able to get treatment for existing substance abuse disorders and mental illness, with 80% of patients presenting clear evidence of mental illness, Komaromy says.

People stayed at the unit an average of 1 week; while all came in without a home, about one-quarter left with a stable place to stay, Komaromy says, made possible by the hard work of volunteer case managers who found long-term treatment options or family and friends to take their loved one in.

BMC medical and support staff donated time on top of their regular responsibilities to take on shifts at the pavilion, motivated by a grateful group of patients, Komaromy says.

“We heard from them again and again how grateful they were to have a place to stay, that they wouldn’t be infecting other people,” she says. “This generosity of heart was really touching to hear.”

UNICEF: Young voices speak up

Knowledge can mean the difference between life and death. This message is especially critical for global humanitarian organization UNICEF, with a mission of saving children’s lives around the world through education and access to basic nutrition, clean water, vaccines and more.

Early and flexible funding from AbbVie helped UNICEF respond to the coronavirus pandemic globally including in countries such as Brazil, Greece, Syria and Kenya, through infection prevention training and PPE.

Notably, support from companies like AbbVie was also key for UNICEF’s launch of a massive educational health effort for children and teens worldwide. The innovative program teaches everything from mask-wearing to hand hygiene to social distancing. Youth then take this information back to their families.

“Having that immediate trust and partnership, and ability to start work as soon as possible, was extremely important to us,” says UNICEF Director of Corporate Partnerships Justine Feighery. “COVID-19 is hitting the most vulnerable population in every country. Having funding from AbbVie allows us to respond to that.”

UNICEF has tailored special programs to different parts of the world, like in Benin, West Africa, where the organization sponsored a YouTube music video performed by an 8-year-old singer, Fifa La Lune, and the organization’s national ambassador a singer/songwriter Zeynab Abib. The children’s song describes COVID-19 prevention measures that everyday people can take. UNICEF also sponsored a video contest challenging young people to come up with their own COVID-19 messaging.

“The energy around children and teenagers is powerful,” Feighery says. “Their voices are really strong; their beliefs are really powerful. They become very engaged in activities like this.”

Love Beyond Walls: Letting love flow

Before COVID-19 hit, Atlanta-based nonprofit Love Beyond Walls focused on getting people experiencing homelessness out of their current situation and into housing with a raft of innovative ways to supply basic needs including free showers, laundry services and help with obtaining IDs and jobs.

As the novel coronavirus began to spread across the U.S., the organization’s founder Terence Lester knew Love Beyond Walls needed to find a way to help. A local man experiencing homelessness told Lester he worried about contracting COVID-19 because he had nowhere to wash his hands. This lightbulb moment led Lester to create Love Sinks In.

Volunteers bring portable, hands-free sinks to homeless populations on streets, under bridges and other high-traffic areas. An average of 75 people can wash their hands from one sink per day.

The program quickly went international, now with over 400 foot-pedal sinks in cities throughout the United States, Canada and Australia. While preventing infection is paramount, the program has other benefits, says Morgan Wright, COVID-19 response development coordinator at Love Sinks In.

“One of the biggest things we hear is that people feel like their dignity has been restored,” she says. “When they have a place to wash their hands and face, they feel more presentable to others. It brings that smile, that joy to their face.”

An AbbVie grant supported an expansion of Love Sinks In to other communities hit by COVID-19, such as the Navajo Nation in Arizona and encampments of immigrants near the Texas/Mexico border, Lester says.

“We will keep spreading and multiplying our efforts,” he says. “I’m hoping COVID-19 has spoken to our hearts about sanitation being a permanent fixture in our society.”

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