For Lowcountry nonprofits that depend on close, one-on-one relationships, the pandemic could have put a damper on critical work when it was needed most.
Fortunately, those working behind the scenes to ensure the groups can continue to function have adapted to keep up with evolving restrictions and recommendations from health officials.
“Obviously, COVID threw us for a loop,” said Reading Partners Executive Director Kecia Greenho. “But, we innovated quickly in the spring and summer and rolled out a virtual tutoring platform that lets us work over Google Meet or Zoom.”
Reading Partners, which helps mentor students in low-income schools, isn’t the only group that shifted into a virtual gear. Lowcountry Local First, which partners with local small businesses and connects them to valuable resources, also had to change its model.
“We had to quickly pivot all of our content online,” Marketing and Communications Director Jordan Amaker said. “From curating events and programming to just the way we communicate with our members, it was significantly in-person before.”
Other groups, like the Blood Connection, aren’t as flexible. It’s difficult to socially distance when donating blood, an unavoidably physical process, so the focus became how to do it as safely as possible, according to Partnership Coordinator Allie Van Dyke.
“We’ve had to adapt and make sure things were safe,” she said. “But, the good thing for us is that things are already really regulated and clean, so the big thing was the space and the number of people. The most important thing is that we just limit the number of people inside.”
Reading Partners’ switch to virtual went smoothly, Greenho said, as the program director and herself were already thinking of how to begin the move to online programming before the start of the pandemic.
“Charleston and Berkeley were way further along with their technological needs than other schools across the country,” Greenho said. “Schools in New York are without devices still, whereas everybody has one here. We have internet connectivity issues, still, but we are working on that.”
Technical difficulties have proven to be challenging for some groups. Many students are too young to operate the programs on their own, and some tutors may have trouble getting things to work on their end as well. And due to the remote nature, there’s little either can do to help the other out.
“It’s a lot to manage if everybody’s working from home,” Greeenho said. “You can imagine a stressed out mom with three kids trying to get one of them logged into a Zoom call with a remote tutor who’s also having problems with the technology.”
The hurdles in front of Lowcountry Local First were more to do with the hassle of accessing online content, Amaker said. The group attempted to continue its regular programming virtually, but what Amaker called “Zoom fatigue” quickly set in, and the numbers dwindled.
“All of what would have been fun, ‘Let’s hang out at the farmer’s market’ became, ‘Hey, this is how people can find you still,’ ” Amaker said. “Just letting people know that we are still here for them has become my focus.”
Health-based nonprofits were dealing with the pandemic head on, creating new problems to power through. The Blood Connection has dealt with unstable blood supplies from the start of the two-week quarantine.
“We have never shut down; we don’t get to,” Van Dyke said. “When blood drives were cancelling, we were just figuring out where other places were that would take us. We’ve had to get really creative as we’ve ebbed and flowed with the different restrictions.”
The pandemic won’t last forever, though, and some group leaders are already thinking to the days ahead.
“Someone asked me recently, ‘When COVID is over, will your virtual platform go away,’” Greenho said. “I think it will always be something that we will use, especially here, so we can reach those rural students where it’s harder to recruit volunteers.”
Others are playing it safer and remaining conservative, especially as case numbers are beginning to skyrocket again.
“We are still trying to stay in the present and see how it goes day by day,” Amaker said. “It’s hard to do a ton of planning when you don’t really know what’s going to happen next with the pandemic.
“We are just going to continue to advocate for support for our local businesses. We are keeping an eye on what may or may not become another round of federal stimulus money, and just keeping our ear to the ground on what else we can be doing to keep doors open and lights on.”