Nuestras Raíces Farm: A Summer Classroom for Local Youth

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response FundPlanting and harvesting vegetables.

Feeding cows and chickens.

Packaging boxes of freshly picked food to take to local people in need.

Tending the land.

That’s how 50 youth from Greater Springfield spent three days per week this summer working at Nuestras Raíces Farm in Holyoke. Along the way, they learned about farming, food systems, and the importance of sustaining the earth. Daily nature walks along the Connecticut River were eye-openers, too.

Heriberto Flores, president and CEO of Partners for Community, made it happen along with the New England Farm Workers Council, a program providing employment and training for people working to overcome poverty. A grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund provided funding for program staff and youths’ wages.

In past years, Partners for Community used state and federal grants to provide summer employment for 400 Greater Springfield youth ages 14-17. The job sites ranged from retailers to grocery stores to pharmacies and doctors’ offices—all to give young people skills that could prepare them for future careers.

With COVID-19 threatening local businesses and workplaces, the summer job program was turned on its head. Flores saw that virtual learning was becoming overwhelming for many young people and their families, so he found a way for some of the young people to learn outdoors through jobs at the farm.

Said Flores, “It’s a different world for them, since many of the kids live in urban areas…They love the process of learning about the environment and the bees and how everything is interconnected. Now they are looking at a bee from a different perspective—to respect that little bee, because we need them to pollinate flowers.”

He continued, “And you know you’re doing something right when the parents are giving you compliments! They told us, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing. They [youth] come back from the farm so tired they don’t even go out—they just want to take a shower and go to sleep. Thank you.’”

Got a minute? Watch below to see the youth learn about bees. Video courtesy of Partners for Community [original was edited].

Friends of Children: “These are the stories we celebrate”

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response FundWhen a young person “ages out” of the foster care system at age 18, family and community connections are scarce. For youth in Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties, mentors from Friends of Children often fill the void.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, one mentor and her mentee cooked the same recipe in each other’s respective kitchens and ate dinner “together”—all while on Zoom.

“The mentors are anchors,” said the agency’s executive director, Jane Lyons. “They keep young people grounded, reach out, spend time, and coach them to make good decisions.”

Hadley-based Friends of Children works to improve the lives of children and young people who are at-risk of entering foster care or are already in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems and have aged out. Volunteer mentors, carefully selected and trained, are crucial supports.

When COVID-19 struck, thousands of Massachusetts parents picked up their college students and brought them home. But for many young people from the foster system, no one came for them after college dorms closed. Suddenly, many had nowhere to live. Other former foster kids were among those who lost jobs.

“Housing issues, food insecurity, anxiety and isolation came roaring back,” said Lyons. These experiences and feelings, she noted, were familiar to youth who had been in the foster care system.

With a grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, Friends of Children did a quick survey of its youths’ basic needs. Were they safe? Did they have a place to live? Food? Did they understand how to file for SNAP or unemployment benefits? Could they grocery shop? The agency and its mentors jumped in to fill needs. From there, they provided “wellness kits”—thermometers, masks, sanitizers, and grocery gift cards. Mentoring is ongoing.

Lyons described another young woman, aged out of foster care, who was homeless. She split time between hotel rooms or at the homes of various friends, which were often unsafe or unsavory due to drug activity. Her mentor reached out to her daily, even at midnight if needed, to coach her mentee through different situations. With the support of her mentor, she got safe and stable housing and now has a part-time job.

“She is so proud,” said Lyons. “The investment during COVID paid dividends. She moves into her first independent apartment next week. These are the stories we celebrate.”

Photo by Tori Wise on Unsplash

Summer Fun, Learning, and Respite for Springfield’s Families

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response FundSo much has been asked of parents and children during the pandemic. With summer approaching, Keshawn Dodds wanted to offer Springfield’s families respite from isolation, Zoom, remote schooling, and working-while-parenting.

The Boys & Girls Club Family Center, where Dodds is executive director, typically runs teen leadership programs, athletics, after school activities, a preschool and more. In-person programs shut down in March, but Dodds wanted the summer to be different.

A grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley to the Club made summer fun possible again for many of Springfield’s youth.

“It was a blessing,” Dodds says. “It helped us get what we needed to open successfully – hand sanitizers, wipes, masks for all the kids, thermometers. And it helped us hire staff that would be specifically in charge of COVID planning and monitoring.”

Ready to roll! A young participant in the Boys & Girls Club Family Center’s summer program. (Photo courtesy of Desiree Provost)

Ready to roll! A young participant in the Boys & Girls Club Family Center’s summer program. (Photo courtesy of Desiree Provost)

Collaborating with Springfield’s Department of Health and Human Services and its public schools, Dodds and his staff—he calls them “first responders”—planned an in-person summer session that is both safe and enjoyable.

“Planning was the hardest thing ever,” he says. “We revamped everything from transportation to meals, focused on outdoor activities, and engaged the kids in their own health and safety.” To allow for social distancing at all times, the Club enrolled half the number of youth it usually does in the summer.

Young participants write their own safety plans, wear masks, socially distance, and watch videos about handwashing and other COVID prevention measures. Temperatures are checked three times a day, and parents receive and fill out daily checklists.

The Club doubled down on STEM activities, resulting in great creativity. “One group built a bridge from one desk to another using pipe cleaners,” says Dodds. “It held an 80-pound kid— we have the photographic evidence!” Outdoor activities include hikes and walks, and socially distanced games like kick-bowling.

“Kids are so happy to be out of the house. But parents need these programs as much as kids. Parents have to work, and our society does very little to support them,” says Dodds.

After the first day, one mom posted on the Club’s Facebook page about her little boy, “I was nervous about letting him go back but when they said they got everything covered they meant it. Thank you so much, Boys & Girls Club Family Center. You guys sure did cover everything and make sure they still had fun while learning and being together.”

A Safe, Warm Welcome for Refugees

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response FundBefore COVID-19, conversations in Spanish, Somali, Nepali, Russian, Vietnamese, Swahili, and Arabic (to name a few) filled the reception areas and treatment rooms of Springfield’s Caring Health Center (CHC). President and CEO Tania M. Barber has missed those sounds most since CHC, the largest provider of refugee health services west of Boston, started providing most of its care remotely in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The dislocation that refugees experience –new country, culture and language, often after long-term trauma– is compounded by the disruptions of the pandemic.

Barber described a group of Congolese men who arrived in Springfield early in 2020 and received initial health assessments at the Center. Hired as hotel cleaners, they had just started working prior to everything being shut down. Suddenly they were quarantined in a strange land, as confused as anyone about what was happening. The men didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they’d only worked for about two months, and were anxious about surviving in quarantine with no income.

Photo by Kate Moum on Unsplash

Photo by Kate Moum on Unsplash

A grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley enabled CHC to help the men and other refugee clients in direct and unusual ways. In addition to providing them with transportation and gift cards for grocery stores and pharmacies, CHC purchased and delivered mattresses – as a COVID-19 prevention measure.

“Extended families live together in crowded conditions,” said Barber. “There may be multiple people sleeping in one bed. The mattresses allow family members to spread out in the home at night, sleeping a safe distance apart from each other.”

Another new practice for CHC was telehealth. “We were complete beginners,” says Barber. “We needed to move quickly to make sure there were no gaps in care for our patients, and the first grant we received from the Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Fund was perfectly timed.” The grant supported CHC’s need to purchase laptops for staff members and to train everyone in best practices.

A few services continued on-site, including childhood vaccinations, urgent care, refugee health assessments, and COVID-19 testing. All required more personal protective equipment, In addition to masks, gloves, and gowns, CHC purchased a Walk-Up Doc, a clear booth with built-in gloves, designed so that the medical workers administering coronavirus tests needn’t continuously change masks and gowns between patients. “We can test more, with greater safety,” says Barber.

“Many refugees have come to expect very little,” says Barber. “In Springfield, they find a supportive network of community organizations. As hard a time as this is, it is great to be able to help and make a difference in people’s health and lives.”

During Crisis, Meal Deliveries Comfort Older People and Their Caregivers

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response Fund“It was such a relief to have a funder reach out and say, how are you doing? What do you need?” said Jill Keough, executive director of Greater Springfield Senior Services (GSSSI).

Keough was reflecting on a call from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts back in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced elders, among the most vulnerable to the virus, to stay at home. Since keeping older adults healthy, independent, and socially connected at home is GSSSI’s core mission, its work took on new meaning and its staff adopted new methods.

Serving Greater Springfield since 1972, the agency offers case management, meals, caregiver support, health and wellness programs and much more. With its congregate meals closed, Keough recognized that GSSSI’s clients would miss out on nutrition and much-needed social contact. And pressure on caregivers, whether family members or home health aides, would intensify.

Greater Springfield Senior Services staff members prepare to deliver meals to clients at home.

With a grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, GSSSI ramped up its meal delivery program to reduce its clients’ isolation and protect and support caregivers. GSSSI typically delivered 1,200 meals per week. When congregate meals ended at the agency and throughout the region, meal delivery requests to GSSSI climbed to 4,000 weekly.

It developed new partnerships in order to deliver more meals—from the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center to several Councils on Aging—and delivered extras with the meals on TP Tuesday and Sanitizer Friday. A collaboration with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority enabled GSSSI to keep its travel costs down. And GSSSI sourced food from hard-hit local food businesses, like Elegant Affair and Rachel’s Foods.

“The community connections have been great,” says Keough. “I think we’re on to something special. We’ve been forced out of our comfort zones, and this could provide some models for the future.”

With the meal deliveries come brief but meaningful bits of socializing and check-ins─ from a distance. The contacts benefit clients and caretakers. Keough says, “One of the nicest surprises is the impact our programs have had on caregivers: alleviating their stress and giving them one less thing to worry about. They get a meal, too.” Masks and gloves are also provided for caregivers and clients.

GSSSI has continued its client assessments via videoconferencing and lots of good old-fashioned phone calls. Staff and volunteers make 8,000 weekly check-in calls to clients. “We flag folks who really want to stay on the phone and talk,” says Keough. Volunteers make additional weekly calls to those clients.

“We’re extremely appreciative to the Response Fund,” says Keough. “It has allowed us to serve older people and their caregivers in ways we wouldn’t be able to do before.”

The Journey Ahead

In mid-December, I had the opportunity to travel throughout China with my family. One memory I return to often is our visit to Mount Hua where we climbed thousands of steps carved into the side of the mountain, stayed the night in an unheated hostel at the tip of one peak, and visited Daoist temples perched on sheer cliffs. For centuries, pilgrims have climbed those same steps to pray, seek advice, and dream. The air was thin, the steep steps too numerous to count, and I often held on for dear life. We watched the stars come out, lanterns flicker on to guide the pilgrims, and the sun rise spectacularly. It was cold and hard and scary at times—and also inspiring.

Mount Hua, Shaanxi Province, December 2019. Photo credit Katie Allan Zobel.

After months of planning, the Community Foundation formally launches its organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion work this week, and I am reminded of that climb and of the Daoist philosopher, Lao Tzu’s quote: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I imagine this journey ahead for the Foundation will be long and difficult at times, yet surely it will also be infused with insight, inspiration, and hope.

We began this journey last year by reviewing our strategy as a funder and regional leader. We surveyed donors, our nonprofit grantees, community and business leaders, and the broader public. We identified needs, catalogued our strengths, and mapped a new strategic vision: to increase equity and opportunity for all who live in our region.

Dismantling systemic racism requires putting equity at the center, making a commitment to tear down barriers to equal opportunities and build better outcomes for all.

Working toward increasing equity requires listening and learning.  We are starting with ourselves. Among our goals this year are to:

  • Develop shared organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) vision and framework
  • Take an honest look at our internal culture, including our policies, structure, practices, and personnel
  • Create a plan for addressing gaps and inequities, including a plan to continue DEI-education and capacity building among staff and volunteers

This work will be guided throughout the year by our consultant partners, Inclusive Performance Strategies from Grand Rapids, MI.

We will continue to blog about this journey over the year, to share the process and reflect on the challenges and the progress.

We know this work will be hard, but we are committed to affecting real and lasting change in our community. It won’t be a walk in the park; it’s a journey of a thousand miles.


Not a Single Day Without Health Care

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response FundIt was early March when a huge challenge confronted the leaders of the Community Health Center of Franklin County (CHCFC). How could they continue to care for their 8,000 patients when the coronavirus forced them to close their physical space? Face-to-face care was no longer an option.

Remarkably, the Health Center achieved the improbable: In the last three months, they haven’t stopped health care services for a single day.

A grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley helped make it possible. The funds enabled the Health Center to speedily adopt a telehealth model, where they could conduct most medical appointment by phone and video conference, buy computers for staff, and provide IT assistance to set up home offices.

CHCFC’s Rachel Katz said, “We would not have been able to move as quickly as we did without the grant.” Katz, a family nurse practitioner and lead clinician for addiction treatment programs, had been at the center for about a month when the crisis hit.

The Community Health Heath Center of Franklin County opened an outdoor COVID-19 testing site at their Orange location.

The Community Health Heath Center of Franklin County opened an outdoor COVID-19 testing site at their Orange location.

“Our priorities were to keep our staff safe and to keep providing life-spanning primary care,” she said. That includes sexual and reproductive health, behavioral health, chronic disease management, diagnostic screenings, laboratory services, and specialized care for opioid addiction. “We were able to move 99% of our staff off-site—including providers—without sacrificing care.”

After a slight dip in appointments during the first telehealth week, “Our appointments have stayed steady,” said Katz. Patients have adapted to telehealth, and “We’ve seen a huge increase in the number of calls. Nurses have been slammed addressing patients’ concerns and worries, as well as ruling out COVID-19.” If people are COVID symptomatic, the health center sees them in person.

The Health Center has done COVID testing throughout the crisis in its Greenfield and Orange offices and with drive-through tests. “In three weeks, we did 300 tests,” said Katz.

As expected, patients’ mental health concerns increased. Staff working from home have been proactively calling all patients who have ever screened for depression, to see how they’re doing and what they need. “People really appreciate that we’re thinking of them.”

The Health Center serves a diverse community, including working class people, professionals, people who are homeless or use drugs, farmworkers, and many children. With its deep commitment to community health, the center was determined to keep up with its patients’ diverse needs, particularly those in recovery.

Because federal and state regulations have relaxed during the pandemic, said Katz, “We can subscribe suboxone without in-person visits, give people packets to take home, and pharmacies can provide refills. It’s kind of ground-breaking, and I hope we can bring some of these practices forward into the future.”

Innovation right now is a necessity, but it may also improve the health care of the future. That counts as a silver lining.

Meeting Urgent Need for Food

Your Generosity at Work - COVID-19 Response FundPre-pandemic, the Amherst Survival Center was bustling as a vibrant community meeting place, open to everyone. The Center met basic needs, serving meals, providing groceries, running a clinic, acting as a resource center, and hosting community activities.

“We serve a really broad swath of people—your neighbors,” says executive director Lev Ben-Ezra. “Many folks are working, some are unemployed or underemployed; we serve seniors on fixed incomes and people with disabilities; farmers, immigrants and refugees. Really everyone.”

The Center is open to all, and primarily serves residents of Hampshire and Franklin Counties. The Food Pantry is available to residents of 13 towns including, Amherst, Belchertown, Deerfield, Granby, Hadley, Leverett, Pelham, Shutesbury, South Deerfield, South Hadley, Sunderland, Ware and Whately, as well as anyone who is currently homeless.

A family of Amherst Survival Center volunteers helps distribute fresh produce.

A family of Amherst Survival Center volunteers helps distribute fresh produce. Photo courtesy of the Amherst Survival Center.

When COVID-19 hit, Ben-Ezra said her staff quickly realized that they’d have to make big changes, both for everyone’s safety and to meet their community’s most urgent need: food. Before COVID-19, the Center hosted a daily breakfast bar and hot lunch, and a weekly dinner. Community members could also make a full grocery shop monthly the Center’s Food Pantry, and monthly pick up fresh produce and bread daily during the Center’s open hours.

Suddenly the requests for daily lunches doubled; registration for the Center’s food pantry quadrupled. “We were seeing people we had never seen before,” says Ben-Ezra. But the Amherst Survival Center was no longer able to serve sit-down meals or operate its food pantry as it normally would.

“The people we serve are resourceful and resilient; they’ve been through a lot. But this pandemic has really rocked all of us,” says Ben-Ezra. “Not only are people impacted by unemployment and underemployment, and worried about health, but social isolation means that many support networks people rely on for rides, for example, have been disrupted. A person whose normal grocery routine relies on coupons and shopping at five or six grocery stores can no longer do that. It’s not safe.”

Volunteers prepare to-go meals at the Amherst Survival Center.

Volunteers prepare to-go meals at the Amherst Survival Center. Photo courtesy of the Amherst Survival Center.

Now, pre-packaged to-go meals are distributed daily, along with bread and produce, at a station right outside the building. The pantry has changed its model from drop-in shopping, now assembling boxes full of canned goods, grains, fresh milk, eggs, cheese, meat, produce, toiletries, hygiene products and pet food that can be picked up in its dining room— with safe social distancing. The Center is also offering no-contact curbside pickup and grocery delivery to anyone who is ill, disabled, or has transportation issues.

The Amherst Survival Center gratefully accepted a grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley, hosted by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. With the grant, Ben-Ezra said, “We purchased food. We bought to-go containers. We acquired equipment for our outdoor distribution— tents, coolers, and shelving. We are now able to accept more perishable food donations because we’ve been able to purchase additional refrigeration.”

“We’re so unbelievably grateful for the Foundation’s swift response in this crisis, and the flexibility of that support. This crisis has required such significant levels of creativity and innovation. Those contributions have enabled us to continue responding with flexibility.”

Shoulder to Shoulder: A Message to Our Community

Shoulder to Shoulder

Dear Pioneer Valley Community,

Like many of you, we find ourselves reeling from the horrific racism, injustice and deaths we are witnessing, and it leaves us in anguish. We hear the cries of pain and anger of the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and of thousands of protestors. We at the Community Foundation see you, and we stand with you.

We are also asking how we can do more. How will we, as a charitable foundation, shoulder our full responsibility to our community—and to everyone in our community? We don’t have all the answers, but we know we must start where we are, recommit to that work every day, and do this work with others.

The Foundation has set its sights on creating equity and opportunity for all people in our region. We will do so in ways where we have a high level of skill and in new ways where we will need practice and expert assistance. Most importantly, we are committed to listening and deepening our understanding of the experiences of people of color.

We are focused on advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in organizations and businesses throughout the region, starting with ourselves. We are launching a year-long deep dive into this work next week for Foundation staff and Trustees. As an organization, we are at the very start of our learning journey. We will be writing about this work in a blog series that will share our approach, the challenges and opportunities we face, and the progress we make. We plan to share the first post next week.

We will continue to use an equity lens for our COVID response and recovery grantmaking, in our Valley Creates initiative, and in our scholarship program. Katie will also continue to speak up and share her thinking on her Twitter feed, the Community Foundation’s blog and other communications.

Please be in conversation with us on any of our social media accounts. We will continue to seek partners in this work, and we will keep finding new ways to advance our vision of equity and opportunity for all.

We hope you will join us, shoulder to shoulder, in this effort to create a better future.

In unity,

Elizabeth Sillin, Trustee Chair

Paul Murphy, Distribution Committee Chair and Trustee Vice Chair

Katie Allan Zobel, President and CEO