Pandemic created competition for services for region’s poor

Published 12:36 pm Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The young woman pulled up to our commodity food distribution line in her car. She rolled down the tinted windows and pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. With tears streaming down her face, she shared her story.
She lost her good-paying job when her company closed during the pandemic and her bills quickly piled up. She said she never imagined she would find herself struggling to buy food for her young children, but now she was.
Her story unfortunately is not unique. As a result of the ripple effect COVID-19 had on our economy, many people find themselves in need of assistance for the first time. This new diverse group of “neighbors” (who we call our clients at the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Agency) risk losing their self-sufficiency and joining those who were already struggling prior to the pandemic. Now, both groups are competing for our already-strained services.
The pandemic created major employment challenges and forced households to make tough decisions regarding working versus personal safety and the health/wellbeing of their families. Not surprising, we saw a whopping 192% increase in need for our programs!
During the pandemic, many of our neighbors were seeking one-time assistance until they got back on their feet. They couldn’t pay their rent or mortgage, or their utilities, for example. While we provided for this need, we also let them know that we are here for them for the long-haul. Our ultimate goal is to help our neighbors become self-sufficient. We accomplish this through a wide range of services including case management, financial literacy and helping them set (and reach) goals. It’s a slow process down an often-uncomfortable road to self-sufficiency for many of them.
Our approach to battling poverty is to take a personalized look at their barriers. We conduct an assessment and look at their stable-versus-crisis areas, then we help them identify their needs and set goals, both short term — like finding a job — and long term — like going back to school to learn a trade so they can start a career. We work with them as long as they want us to. Some are only in the program for a brief time while they get back on their feet. Others benefit from working with us for a longer period. Everyone has diverse needs and we’re happy to meet them just where they are.
Many of our case workers were our clients at one point. This unique perspective really enhances their understanding of those we help and offers hope to those just getting started in our programs.
We realize the pandemic has created unprecedented setbacks for so many. But, on a positive note, we witnessed our communities coming together as never before to provide support, goods and services to our region’s most vulnerable. Those of us in the social services field realized something important because of COVID-19: we can do our jobs anywhere. With cell phones and laptops, we can work remotely if necessary. The pandemic really strengthened our team and showed our resolve, despite the fact we were quarantined and working from home. As a result of the pandemic, we are now better prepared than ever to serve our community.We love working with our neighbors. We love seeing that glimmer of hope in their eyes when they realize someone understands, someone cares, and someone will stand by them till they get back on their feet. The work we do is hard, especially for the front-line staff. But the passion and love for helping others is what carries us through, especially on the tough days. Our staff’s pride in their work is obvious when they excitedly share success stories of our neighbors. We cheer and celebrate with them because their successes are our communities’ successes too.
(Norma Tremblay is Community Services Director for the Upper East Tennessee Human Development Association.)

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