Local Volunteer Partners Create Strong Community Resources Network

Posted on September 10, 2020
Joy Washington

The University of South Alabama’s Office of Community Engagement is one of several partners contributing volunteer power and resources to the United Way of Southwest Alabama (UWSWA) Community Resources Network to help individuals and families affected by COVID-19 and other crises.

USA founded the network in March 2020 along with the UWSWA, Spring Hill College’s Albert S. Foley S.J. Community Service Center, Danny Patterson with the Gulf States Health Policy Center and Patricia Scanland of Scanland Consulting. Additional partners are the Mobile County Health Department, The City of Mobile, Mobile County, and Mobile County Public School System, along with other nonprofit agencies and businesses in Mobile, Baldwin, Washington and Clarke counties.

“More than 70 participants started attending 90-minute Zoom meetings back in March, when the lockdown occurred, to discuss what resources were available and how we might share this information with individuals and families in need,” said Shannon Shelley-Tremblay, director of the USA Office of Community Engagement. “This has been a rich process. We have also surveyed nonprofit agencies about their specific needs. And, we have connected those in need of food, transportation, translation services and more. We have created a system that will provide long-lasting community support. This is part of USA’s mission, which is to support and provide services to the community.”

When COVID-19 hit the Mobile community it was challenging to secure volunteers, and many agencies lost their funding, said Dr. Erik Goldschmidt, director of the Albert S. Foley S.J. Community Service Center. He noted that this new network connected a community that had become separated by the pandemic.

“Everyone was surprised at how isolated the community had become,” Goldschmidt said. “Funding had been cut for many nonprofit agencies and volunteers couldn’t serve. The agencies couldn’t access their clients in the same way they had done before. Isolation was a real consequence of the pandemic. The network has provided information and shared practices and overall support for those going through similar circumstances.

Goldschmidt said participants could ask the tough questions and share their challenges with leaders.

“Speaking with leaders was very beneficial,” he said. “What’s beautiful is that we have built new connections because of this opportunity. The next good outcome is that people are developing innovative and creative solutions to these new problems and sharing the knowledge. A collaborative community spirit has grown out of this crisis.”

Trista Stout-Walker, vice president of community impact at UWSWA, said this effort with the scheduled meetings has been like attending numerous mini-conferences, with the next meeting scheduled for Sept. 30.

“We discuss topics on the true needs of the community,” she said. “For example, we were made aware of the number of citizens affected by homelessness and those threatened with evictions from their homes. We saw a need and are working with community stakeholders to find a solution. We recently were able to help a veteran who needed assistance, and he recommended a neighbor who needed help. This is about one client calling for help and recommending others in need.”

The network needed a quick communications solution to help during this process. One of the ways the information has been shared is a group email discussion list. Brad Martin, VITA volunteer program coordinator for UWSWA, had experience creating and managing a listserv system, and he volunteered to take on this role for the network. Participants on the Zoom sessions can later share important information the community may need via the listserv.

 “This is how we get food, masks, and other personal protective equipment to the agencies, individuals, and families in need. We also encourage those in need to use the 211 helpline number for essential emergencies,” he noted. “This network allows us to combine services. We are making sure that people are heard when they are in need. The listserv has become the main ongoing communication tool among agencies when assistance is needed; and individuals in need can make one call to 2-1-1 and be connected to all the services they need, whether that’s food, medical help, or assistance with securing their stimulus checks.

Shelley-Tremblay noted that USA and the United Way of Southwest Alabama have been longtime collaborators and partners. United Way recently kicked off its annual community campaign, and USA’s employees and students are significant donors and supporters of the annual fundraising and awareness efforts. Last year, USA President Tony Waldrop served as the United Way Board of Trustees chair.

“Not only do we participate in the annual campaign effort, we will continue to be a supporter of the network, which will remain active and responsive to the community,” said Shelley-Tremblay. “What started as a meeting has developed into a community resource that will exist well beyond the pandemic.”

Volunteers are still needed, and those who are interested can sign up through USA’s South Serves website, which serves as the central point for matching South students, faculty/staff, alumni, and other community volunteers with projects.

To learn more or join the network, email sshelley-tremblay@southalabama.edu or twalker@uwswa.org.

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