The coronavirus pandemic has been an additional burden for Kentuckians who were already struggling with food and job insecurity as well as medical conditions and disabilities. But the health crisis has also been a challenge for the non-profit social service agencies committed to helping these individuals.
“When COVID hit, we immediately looked at what we had within our own coffers, and issued investment out into the community in a way that allowed many of those direct-service organizations to serve an even greater capacity, given the demand that they were seeing,” says Adria Johnson, chief impact officer of Metro United Way in Louisville.
“The need always outweighs the resource,” she says. “But we truly have a community with an incredible amount of individuals and foundations that have really, really giving hearts, and that are all working incredibly hard to make that sacrifice... to help lift everyone else in need.”
Metro United Way works to improve persistent challenges around education, health outcomes, and financial independence for people in Jefferson County and six other Kentucky and southern Indiana counties that surround Louisville. The agency musters funding, administrative support and volunteers for more than 100 local non-profits, including the American Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Kentucky Refugee Ministries, Louisville Urban League, the Center for Women and Families, and others.
“We’re proud that when this pandemic hit and we needed to go into crisis-response mode, we were able to do that and do that very effectively,” says Johnson.
The agency raised and distributed more than $1.5 million in COVID-related funding, helped people facing eviction, and distributed thousands of face masks and gloves as well as more than 125 gallons of hand sanitizer to needy groups.
Johnson says Metro United Way also administered federal CARES Act relief aid that went to local child care facilities. Early childhood success is one of the goals of the organization, helping to ensure that all children are prepared for kindergarten and have achieved the proper social and emotional developmental milestones.
But with the pandemic forcing the closure of many of those centers, Johnson says it’s important to develop ways to help those facilities rebound, and help reengage the children and families that were impacted.
Given this year’s protests over racial injustice and police brutality, Johnson says her organization is also committed to addressing the equity issues the prevent all individuals in their seven-county service region from thriving – issues that she says the pandemic has exacerbated.
“We have to really look at all of those persistent things that have lingered in this community where we’ve got gaps in educational attainment, where we have gaps in income and wealth attainment,” Johnson says. “At the root of that is a lot of racial inequity.”
“You can’t... ignore that the playing field just isn’t level for many of our peers,” she continues. “What do we do about that and how do we come together and have some honest conversation about what it’s going to take to actually change that situation in this community? The time is now.”
Goodwill Industries of Kentucky
For 97 years, Goodwill Industries has helped Kentuckians with disabilities or other disadvantages attain independence, self-sufficiency, and an improved quality of life. Like Metro United Way, Goodwill is also experiencing greater demand for its services during the pandemic.
“We used to hear everybody who wants a job has a job, and we know that was not true,” says Amy Luttrell, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Kentucky. “There were so many people who were still shut out of the labor force because of the barriers that they hadn’t been able to overcome.”
With COVID-related layoffs and business closures, Luttrell says more people need help finding work or learning a new skill. Clients may also have a criminal record, addiction problem, mental health concern or issues with housing, child care, or transportation that can make finding and holding a job difficult.
“We try to address as many of those barriers as possible so that they have a real chance to succeed,” Luttrell says. “We know that a job is not just a paycheck,” she continues, “... It’s a boost to their self-esteem.”
Goodwill offers clinics to help people with criminal records navigate the expungement process as well as more general classes for all clients on topics like workplace soft skills, financial literacy, and other job-readiness topics.
“We see people really not knowing how to manage their money because they’re not used to having any,” says Luttrell. “There’s a lot of information that can help them get more mileage out of their paycheck dollars.”
Traditionally those classes were offered in person, but during the pandemic Goodwill has pivoted to providing that instruction virtually so clients from Pikeville to Paducah can still participate. They’ve also supplied computers to addiction treatment centers, halfway houses, and other group-living facilities so that people there can also participate.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of Goodwill’s work are its 64 stores located in 44 Kentucky communities.
“Those stores provide not only funding but also jobs for people who need a place to start, who need a chance to show what they can do,” says Luttrell. “Our mission is to bring opportunity to people and help them get not only into a job but really a career track so that they can build the kind of life they want to have.”
More than 1,000 Kentuckians work at Goodwill stores. In 2019 alone, the organization paid $10 million in wages.
“We prioritize in hiring people who have a criminal background, who lack a high school education or a GED, who have a disability, or who’ve been unemployed for at least six months,” she says.
Goodwill stores thrive on donations made by the public that include clothing, furniture, and small appliances as well as books, DVDs, and toys. Luttrell says people have continued to be generous even during the pandemic, but she says they can always use more items.
“We may have ‘too much’ at one individual store, but the winter months are lean months for us donation-wise,” says Luttrell. “Also we have a lot of stores in our more rural counties, particularly eastern Kentucky, and we always have to supplement the donations that they receive directly.”
Luttrell says Goodwill has an inventory management system that enables them to warehouse excess donations for no longer than two years before they are distributed to stores that are most in need of new stock.