Editor’s note: This article has been edited to correct a reference to Set Free Community Center and Church, one of the nonprofits mentioned in the story, as well as the contact number for this organization.
Nonprofits on the Kenai Peninsula are struggling to continue providing their services to the area’s most vulnerable populations, but many have stuck to the same message in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Reach out if there’s a need. We’re all in this together,” Todd Brigham, executive director of The Compass, said last Friday.
Brigham’s message was echoed by the directors of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, the LeeShore Center, Love, INC and Set Free Community Center and Church, all of whom spoke to the Clarion about what services they are still able to provide to the community.
The Compass is a faith-based, combination coffee shop/youth center located in Nikiski that Brigham and his family started in 2019. The Compass traditionally served as a place where the youth of Nikiski could come after school to do homework, attend tutoring sessions and Bible studies and participate in fun activities with other kids in the area.
These days, the doors to the Compass are closed, but Brigham is still doing what he can for the youth of Nikiski. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has officially transitioned to distance learning until May 1 due to a mandate from the state, so Brigham said he was figuring out a way to set up isolated workstations at the Compass that students without reliable internet access could use for their schoolwork.
Brigham said that, in the meantime, the Compass has transitioned into a makeshift distribution point for getting food and other supplies to the people in the community who need it. Brigham is also doing what he can to stay connected to the kids who were regulars at the Compass by sending texts and making phone calls. It can be a challenge because some of them don’t have things like a phone or reliable internet connection.
Brigham said he hopes to set up some virtual hangouts or game sessions in the future and is using any extra time he has to plan for the summer and the next school year. One bright spot, Brigham said, is that support from the community has remained relatively steady despite many people facing economic uncertainty.
“My main advice for people is to be creative,” Brigham said. “Take opportunities to do little projects around the house or spend time outside.”
Back in Kenai, Set Free Community Center and Church is continuing to provide daily meals for the community, although the meals have to be to-go.
Amy Lynn Burdett Belue, director of Recovery Services at Set Free, said they are still serving breakfast from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. Rather than people coming in to sit down and eat, they are given food at the door. Individual accommodations are made for those who need a new pair of boots or just need a moment inside to warm up from the cold weather.
Recently, Belue and her husband Scott have started delivering meals every evening to several small communities of homeless individuals scattered throughout the area. Belue said last Thursday that she expected to feed about 34 of those people this week.
“Some of them have been reluctant to tell us where they are, but now every night they give us a head count and we come back the next day with food,” Belue said. “I don’t want anyone to be hungry, so we pray with people to alleviate their fears, and we keep their bellies full.”
Belue said that Set Free is asking for monetary donations or donations of meals at this time.
Set Free is not the only organization working to keep people on the peninsula fed. Greg Meyer, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, said on Tuesday that their food options aren’t as varied these days, but they’ve started tapping into their reserves and are continuing to feed whoever comes to the door.
“Right now we’re moving full force ahead,” Meyer said. “We’ll feed you every day and get your monthly food to you.”
Meyer said that the food bank is still serving hot meals, to-go, from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Only one person can be served at a time, so Meyer is encouraging people to pick up food for their friends and neighbors as well. The food bank also continues to help with the local Meals on Wheels programs, although Meyer said that the demand for those services has increased dramatically.
Meyer also continues to struggle with a reduction in regular donations from local grocery stores — sometimes as much as 90% — because so many people are buying in bulk and emptying the shelves. On Tuesday, the Alaska Community Foundation announced $55,000 in grants would be made available to nonprofits across Alaska, and $5,000 of that was designated for the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.
The truck that the food bank normally uses to deliver food to food pantries across the peninsula has been out of commission for several weeks. Meyer said that a donated truck from the Food Bank of Alaska has allowed them to keep some of the deliveries up, but many of the organizations that have food pantries are now coming to the food bank to pick up their supplies.
Meyer said that they have about $7,500 of the $20,000 needed for a new truck.
The food bank continues to provide monthly commodities available to low-income families and seniors through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Food Assistance Program. Meyer said the USDA recently approved a waiver that allows food bank staff to fill out the applications for these commodities on behalf of clients so that the paperwork isn’t potentially contaminated.
As of Tuesday, the food bank was serving as many as 70 meals in a day, and Meyer expected the number of families served to steadily increase as more people start to lose their jobs and experience other financial hardships. Meyer noted that the end of the month is often a busier time at the food bank even under normal circumstances as people struggle to pay rent and other expenses.
Love, INC is a faith-based nonprofit that provides services for people struggling with homelessness or housing instability. Executive Director Leslie Rohr said their office is now operating by appointment only. Typically Love, INC’s doors are open for walk-in services, but these days only one or two clients are allowed inside the building at a time. Rohr said that she and her staff are still working from the office, however, and are able to be spaced far enough part that they don’t risk contaminating each other.
Rohr said that she’s seen in increase in demand for Love, INC’s services, especially for new clients. Others are in situations that have been exacerbated by the current pandemic, and some people are simply reaching out in anticipation of needing services.
Most people these days are looking for assistance in applying for unemployment insurance and public assistance, Rohr said, a process that was tricky even before the pandemic.
“It is historically difficult to get through to public assistance over the phone,” Rohr said. “And now it’s the only option.”
Normally, when a client comes to Love, INC in need of help, an intake specialist will provide them with a list of tasks they can work toward, such as filling out applications for housing or food stamps or setting up job interviews. With so many things being done remotely now, Rohr said much more of the burden falls on the intake specialist to be a go-between, making those calls and filling out those applications on behalf of the clients.
Rohr said that Love, INC has also taken steps to inform clients about the latest news from the State’s Division of Health and Social Services regarding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“A lot of them get their news from Facebook and other social media,” Rohr said. “And as we know that’s not always the most reliable source for information.”
People are still able to come in for laundry and shower services, Rohr said, but on an extremely limited basis.
Meanwhile, for people experiencing domestic violence on the peninsula, the LeeShore Center is still providing what services it can while also keeping the doors closed to the public.
Cheri Smith, executive director of the LeeShore Center, said that the front office is closed to walk-ins and the clothes closet is no longer accepting donations, but the center’s 24/7 crisis hotline is still fully operational and LeeShore’s advocacy services are still available over the phone during normal business hours.
The LeeShore currently has some people staying in their emergency shelter, but Smith said they can no longer accept new people into the shelter. In addition, only one advocate is on shift at any given time, a reduction from standard practices. That being said, Smith emphasized that anyone who is experiencing domestic violence and is in need of shelter should still contact the LeeShore Center so that alternate accommodations can be made.
“People are afraid, and the thought of coming to a shelter where people congregate can be a little scary,” Smith said. “Don’t let that stop you from reaching out if you’re in trouble.”
Smith said that the LeeShore Center has experienced a reduction in calls lately, but she doesn’t attribute that to a reduction in instances of domestic violence. Many people experiencing domestic violence are now finding themselves stuck at home with their abuser, Smith said, and the inability to leave the home may make it harder for some to reach out.
“Do what you can to stay safe, and reach out as soon as it’s safe to do so,” Smith said.
Smith said that LeeShore is currently accepting cash donations as well as unopened cleaning and sanitation supplies such as sanitizer, toilet paper and bleach.
Below is the contact information for these agencies:
The LeeShore Center’s 24/7 crisis hotline: 907-283-7257.
The LeeShore Center’s office number: 907-283-9479 (staffed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Love, INC: 907-262-5140
Set Free : 907-690-1160
The Compass: 907-740-3971