Assistance from a distance: Nonprofits adapt to meet community needs

Assistance from a distance: Nonprofits adapt to meet community needs
A member of ALIVE! sorts through supply inventories. (Photo/Heather Peeler)

By Luke Anderson |

In these uncertain times, the pressure has never been greater for nonprofit organizations to provide assistance vital to many residents’ health and well-being.

More than 150 nonprofits exist within Alexandria, and because of novel coronavirus, they must find ways to continue operations while adhering to social distancing guidelines. They are challenged with increased demand despite quickly depleting resources and funds, and many have been forced to cancel events and programs that would have generated much needed revenue. Yet they are doing their best to stay resilient.

ACT for Alexandria

At the heart of the local nonprofit network is ACT for Alexandria. The community foundation has partnered with the city to create the ACT Now COVID-19 Response Fund to generate money for nonprofits that provide essential services such as food, shelter and emergency health supplies.

A volunteer sets up for a food drive in front of Christ Church in Old Town. (Photo/Melanie Gray)

Through the fund, ACT has already distributed $525,000 to more than 50 organizations, including ALIVE!, Christ Church Lazarus Ministry, Neighborhood Health, The Campagna Center, Senior Services of Alexandria and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Lazarus Ministry, according to ACT’s Chief Program Officer Brandi Yee.

On April 15, ACT hosted the 10th annual Spring2ACTion, known as Alexandria’s Giving Day. This year, the fundraiser was moved up two weeks in order to raise money for the nonprofits sooner, Yee said. This year, 8,453 donors raised $2.45 million on the day of the fundraiser, about $400,000 more than last year, according to the Spring2ACTion website.

“We didn’t know what to expect for our giving day during the pandemic and we were overwhelmed by the incredible generosity of our community in their support for the nonprofits that make Alexandria a healthy and vibrant place for all,” Yee said in an email.

The Spring2ACTion website is still up and running to allow donors to continue contributing. To donate visit

Together We Bake

One of the nonprofits that benefits from Spring2ACTion is Together We Bake, an organization that helps women become self-sufficient through hands-on experience in food service and hospitality. There are usually between 10 and 12 women in each of the four sessions offered per year. This year’s spring session has been cancelled due to coronavirus.

Together We Bake participants work in the kitchen before sessions were cancelled due to coronavirus. (Photo/Together We Bake)

“We are staying in touch with the nine women who had already been accepted for the [s]pring program and trying to determine when we will be able to start the next class,” Elizabeth Bennett-Parker, TWB co-director and Alexandria vice mayor, said in an email. “Since we already have a class that is almost full, it could result in increased demand for the subsequent ones.”

TWB has also been in touch with approximately 30 program graduates to provide psychosocial support and financial assistance for rent and other necessities, Bennett-Parker said.

This week, the TWB kitchen reopened to prepare for orders and shipments commencing May 4, in time for Mother’s Day. As they work, staff are taking care to maintain distance from each other and wear masks and gloves during food production.

TWB is partnering with the Goodhart Group and local restaurants to feed healthcare workers. They will contribute chocolate chip cookies, and the Goodhart Group will match every online order of an “essential cookie for an essential worker.”

Rebuilding Together

It is difficult to follow the statewide stay-at-home order without a safe home. Rebuilding Together DC – Alexandria works with licensed contractors to provide emergency home repairs and ensure residents can safely shelter in place. The organization helps residents with limited income in both Alexandria and D.C.

Rebuilding Together staff are currently working remotely and communicating with their contractors to prioritize repairs posing the highest safety risks. Although more requests come from D.C. than Alexandria, the organization has experienced a spike in requests from both municipalities since the pandemic began, according to Development and Communications Coordinator Riley Conrad.

Several weeks ago, contractors fixed an Alexandria woman’s roof that was decades old and at risk of collapsing, Conrad said. Similar to TWB, Rebuilding Together’s contractors are wearing protective gear such as masks, gloves and shoe covers and keeping a six-foot distance from clients.

Community Lodgings

Community Lodgings is another nonprofit that provides transitional and affordable housing to about 45 families and serves 150 children through a youth education program.

“The impact of school closings and business shutdowns has been particularly hard on the residents in Community Lodgings’s housing programs and our neighbors in the Chirilagua neighborhood,” Development Director Susan Fitzpatrick said in an email. “Over 70 [percent] of the working adults in this neighborhood have lost their jobs or been furloughed.”

To relieve some pressure on these families, Community Lodgings is waiving all housing late fees. It is also helping families with food supplies and ordering food boxes and hot meals each week, which in turn supports local restaurants.

The nonprofit is making an effort to communicate with the families daily and have bilingual staff to help Spanish-speaking families with needed resources. At the same time, staff are checking on students in their youth education program regularly via text and email.

Alexandria Tutoring Consortium

Alexandria Tutoring Consortium is also focused on the well-being and education of children. Its tutors work one-on-one with children to teach them to read. During this time, tutors have had to shift to virtual tutoring, with students reading from hard copy books sent to them by ATC while they follow along in digital copies of the same book.

ATC is using the resources it has, but the students are getting a lesser experience than they would in person, ATC Executive Director Lisa Jacobs said. Tutors and students are trying to video chat but often just communicate over the phone.

“Normally, students engage in several activities including sorting words, writing on a white board or in a notebook, spelling with cutout letters, etc.,” Jacobs said in an email. “Some of this might be possible if student-tutor pairs are able to connect via videoconference, but overall the tutoring session has been greatly streamlined to focus solely on reading books that are at the student’s instructional level.”

Right now, it is difficult to determine if the students are falling behind due to these limitations or if they are making progress as normal, Jacobs explained. End-of-the-year testing will likely indicate the effectiveness of these virtual tutoring sessions.

Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association

The Athenaeum, home of the Northern Virginia Fine Arts Association, has postponed performances and events and closed its doors to the public through May. They are applying for various loans and grants as they move forward in creating a budget and program for the 2020-2021 year.

The new budget will be informed by the effects of the pandemic, NVFAA Executive Director Veronica Szalus said. The organization’s leadership are considering rethinking and adjusting rentals and fundraisers, reducing staff hours and moving more programs online.

On the bright side, NVFAA is calling for entries that chronicle the pandemic and the artists’ emotions during this time. The submissions will be featured in an exhibition later this year called “Moments in Time – A Very Weird Time,” which will be in lieu of NVFAA’s annual invitational. Staff hope the exhibit will showcase a range of perspectives, from isolation and fear to optimism and renewed creative spirit, Szalus said.

From the Athenaeum’s online doodle gallery, this sketch is part of Todd Cumpston’s “COVID-19 Alphabet” series. (Photo/Todd Cumpston)

More immediately, the Athenaeum is accepting “Doodles of These Times” – quick and informal visual representations of people’s experiences during the pandemic. All artists, whether professional or amateur, can submit doodles for the online gallery, which is updated daily. Recent submissions include a woman’s sketch of her husband buzzing his own hair at home, a comic strip depicting the thoughts of a cat whose owner is now home all day and a drawing showing life with and without COVID-19 from an 8-year-old girl living in India.

“We just want to do what we can to be relevant, true to our mission as an arts organization, and take advantage of our platform to serve the community in this time of need,” Szalus said in an email. “We really just want to show the breadth of experiences during this unique situation and give people a creative outlet and place to share their visual thoughts.”

These are just a snapshot of the many nonprofits in Alexandria who are adapting in order to continue providing for the community during these difficult times.

(Read more: Drive-through COVID-19 testing comes to Old Town)