Nebraska Nonprofits Work Through Pandemic

Sept. 22, 2020, 5:24 a.m. ·

A normally bustling Youth Emergency System in Omaha has slowed because of the Pandemic. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in quarantines, businesses shutting down and more than 190,000 Nebraskans filing for unemployment benefits. It’s affected everyone across the state including nonprofits which rely on donations from the public to help keep their books in the black.

At the Youth Emergency Services (YES) office in Omaha, workers gather spaghetti sauce and noodles along with other food essentials to hand out to homeless kids and young adults. Before the pandemic, the YES street outreach center served 50 youth every night. They would visit the center to use the computers, take showers, eat a hot meal or talk with a counselor and see a nurse.

During the pandemic that number has dropped to only a few per day.

The YES office in Omaha. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

Mary Fraser Meints, the executive director of YES, says the pandemic has changed the way they operate.

“We've been doing okay but it changes everything,” Fraser Meints said.

YES provides a prevention service through its street outreach center, offering up basic needs and connections to resources like places to stay and rental assistance. They also provide other services like houses where youth live for up to 18 months. YES counts on public support through donations, but they’ve had to cancel two fundraising events since the start of COVID.

“Really you have to be very creative on funding and grants and diversifying that funding,” Fraser Meints said. “Make sure that there's not one funding source so that you're not dependent on that.”

YES is still serving hot meals, and offering hygiene items and pantry bags to youth in need. The pandemic, though, has made it tougher to do much face-to-face assistance.

Brian Barks is the CEO with the Food Bank for the Heartland, the largest food bank in Nebraska serving 93 counties in Nebraska and Western Iowa. Barks says the pandemic fundamentally changed the way the food bank helps those in need.

“It has had a tremendous impact on donations both the good and the bad," Barks said. “We saw a significant dip in the amount of donated food that we are receiving from say retail and wholesalers and manufacturers in the food industry because consumer demand was so high.”

After the initial dip, there was a boost in food donations. There has also been a boost in cash donations, but not enough to meet the demand of people seeking assistance.

YES offers homeless youth and young adults with needed assistance. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

“Unfortunately, that donated food is not significant enough of an amount to meet the increased need that we are seeing,” Barks said. "But what we're really fearful of is that this is going to be, the economic fallout for COVID is something that we're going to be addressing for years to come.”

Sharon Stephens with the Alzheimer’s Association of Nebraska agrees the pandemic changes every facet of the business model for nonprofits. She says they work with a population more susceptible to COVID-19. They chose to close offices in March and focus on remote working. The Alzheimer's Association of Nebraska changed what they did while ensuring people still received their services. Many of those services are crucial to those who need them.

“A 24/7 helpline that's staffed by those who are prepared to help caregivers with any question they have at any time day or night,” Stephens said.

Stephens says they’ve gotten good feedback on the hotline and the virtual instruction they’ve conducted.

“Will this be favored forever? I don't know,” Stephens said. “But if you ask me in the very beginning what kinds of things have we learned from this? I believe that moving forward we'll be doing some things in person and some things virtually, and that will probably better serve our constituents.”

Stephens says their big fundraiser, the annual Alzheimer’s Walk, will be much different this year. Instead of gathering 2,000 people in the same spot and walking together, they are asking people to walk in their own neighborhoods.

“I contend that people want to connect to something bigger than themselves, and they still want to give back and despite all that's going on in our world, people still care about doing something around this cause,” Stephens said.

Back at the YES headquarters in Omaha, paper bags are being stuffed with bread, peanut butter and canned vegetables.

“Figuring out ways to make it work because our mission must go on,” Fraser Meints said. “We must continue to serve these young people and help them to be self-sufficient even during this time.”

Mary Fraser Meints says pandemic or not, homeless youth are in still need.