Serving Hays from a distance, local charity organizations adapt to COVID guidelines

BY CORIE LYNN

Community service opportunities are often done in close proximity to people, requiring volunteers to be in contact with one another as well as the people they are helping. They sort clothing at Goodwill or deliver meals through Meals on Wheels or spend time with children through Big Brothers Big Sisters.

As COVID-19 worked its way into communities across the country, Ellis County included, community members have had to don masks and social distance to prevent the spread of the virus.

Though enacted for the safety of everyone, these new measures present problems for service organizations that rely on physical labor or closeness.

Nonetheless, Hays-area service organizations and volunteers are determined to find ways to continue to serve their communities.

“In response to COVID-19,” said Lexi Gardner, a match support supervisor with Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters, “we have started completing volunteer enrollment remotely, using Zoom and other virtual platforms, so volunteers can feel comfortable going through the enrollment process.”

The KSBBBS pairs the adversity-facing youth of Ellis County with adult mentors to do activities together a few times a month. Often, the pairs meet in person, but Gardner said the Bigs and Littles are now utilizing Zoom, FaceTime and phone calls to continue to connect.

Gardner explained some families have not had access to these online resources and that technology has not always worked as it should, but the overall response to the format has been positive for Bigs and Littles.

“While we may be physically distancing at times, social connection is important to all of us, especially the more vulnerable populations in our communities,” Gardner said. “Community service allows this connection to occur and to affect change.”

Like Gardner, Erica Barwick of FHSU’s Tigers in Service sees outreach as the perfect way for communities to connect.

“Now more than ever,” she said, “with living in a world that is divided and filled with uncertainty, it is the best time to reach out to those around us, to try and be a light in a time of darkness, and bring hope to those who are lost and unsure.”

Like Big Brothers Big Sisters, TIS now utilizes online platforms to continue to serve their community. The transition to online services did not go as smoothly for the students, however, so the organization utilizes a combination of Facebook events and in-person events.

“[Tigers in Service] is creating events on Facebook and using other social media platforms as a way to stay connected and each will have a specific service theme changing with a combination of weekly or monthly,” Barwick said.

This month is the Spread of Virtual Kindness in which students share posts and pictures of what they find to be inspirational or kind.

Recently, students were also able to participate in a trash clean up on campus, and they can socially distance while helping Hays residents in the upcoming annual Paint-a-Thon.

“To go along with our virtual kindness event, there will be an in-person craft event that will take place outside on quad, where we can spread out, and paint rocks or posters that can be placed around campus or given to friends to help brighten their day,” Barwick said.

At each in-person event, TIS requires face coverings and will have hand sanitizer and gloves available for volunteers.

The student organization is not the only one who has had to adjust to continue in-person services.

“Instead of having people come in our office,” said Jeanie Warner, director of marketing and communications at Catholic Charities of Northwest Kansas, “we had them call and we filled out the paperwork. Our doors were equipped with Ring doorbells and our phone numbers were posted in large print asking people to call us. If they needed items like food, diapers or hygiene items, we arranged a time for them to come pick them up.”

The organization also transitioned to virtual meetings for counseling and other appointments during the Stay at Home order. Now, lobbies are once again open, but masks are a requirement and no-contact delivery is still available.

Initially, Catholic Charities saw a decrease in volunteers but many have returned. They, along with local donors, continue to work to bring food, cleaning supplies and services to Hays and surrounding towns through the Mobile Outreach Program.

Those who do so are essential for providing for locals living in poverty.

“Catholic Charities, like other non-profits agencies, operates on a very tight budget with very few employees. Volunteers are some of our most valuable assets. Without our generous donors and volunteers the work we do would not be possible,” Warner said.

Seeing an increase in community need because of COVID-19, Catholic Charities is seeking new volunteers to prepare for Mobile Outreach Deliveries by picking up and packing food and supplies.

For more information, prospective volunteers are to contact the Hays office at (785) 625-2644 or kfeldt@ccnks.org

Because there is still plenty of work to do around Hays, Tigers in Service and Big Brothers Big Sisters, too, welcome new volunteers.

FHSU can stay up to date with TIS on Facebook or through TigerLink, or they can email the organization at service@fhsu.edu.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has 30 Littles waiting for matches in the form of Big Brothers, Sisters, Couples and Families. More information about serving these youth is found online.

As these organizations and others like them work to offer help to the Hays area, they serve as a reminder that, though volunteer work has had to change, serving our communities is as necessary as ever. Safety regulations will not stop service work from moving forward.

“This pandemic has brought people to us that have never before reached out for assistance,” Warner said. “They are embarrassed to be in their current situation as most have worked hard their whole lives. We do everything we can to maintain their dignity and offer hope. As this crisis continues, we know that this is just the beginning of impact families will be experiencing.”

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