As Wisconsin’s unemployment rate continues to climb and thousands of small businesses remain indefinitely closed by the state’s “Safer-at-Home” in order to contain the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, shortages in supplies, equipment and services have been exacerbated by the public health crisis.
With 405 positive cases and 21 deaths from COVID-19 in Dane County, local businesses, food banks and community organizations have stepped up to provide relief and support during the unprecedented and challenging times.
Sewing for a Cause
After UW Health posted a message on Facebook hoping to find individuals who could sew masks for local hospitals in need of personal protective equipment, Jen Mulder knew she could help organize the volunteer effort.
Mulder, the owner of Electric Needle, a Madison-based sewing machine company, had been forced to close her business and interview at Hy-Vee supermarket for the extra income to support her family.
However, despite paying the bills and in the spirit of lending a helping hand, she recruited fellow sewing enthusiasts to provide cloth masks for various Dane County organizations.
The volunteer response was immediate and overwhelming.
Mulder created a “Sew for a Cause” page on her company’s website to update and inform volunteers on mask requirements and regulations set by each hospital or organization in need. She also created a drop-box for individuals to place masks for donations at The Electric Needle.
“We are trying to do whatever we can for the community we support here,” Mulder said. “We are all in this together and it feels like we are now able to help in some way which is huge.”
The process started slow but Mulder said she now receives over 100 masks a day.
Masks have been sent to the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital, the YWCA women shelter, nursing homes and Emergency Medical Services. Overall, Mulder and her volunteers have sewn approximately 500 cloth masks over the past few weeks.
Mulder’s efforts have been recognized beyond Wisconsin’s borders. She received a donation request from hospitals in Illinois, as well as from an emergency room in Alaska.
While Mulder indicated she will focus on the local community, she regularly updates her website with links to guidelines and tips for sewing masks so that non-local customers can help sew for those in their community.
In addition, Mulder rented out sewing machines to students in the UW-Madison Design Studies Program to complete their projects remotely.
After Madison hospitals initially expressed safety concerns related to mask donations, Mulder said hospitals have now received approval and are able to take donations from her organization. Most recently, St. Mary’s Hospital and Meriter/Unity Point have reached out to “Sew for a Cause” for masks.
And the feedback could not be better.
“They’ve been very positive,” Mulder said. “They’re thankful that we care about not just the large hospitals [but] our focus on local people that can’t shelter in place because of the need for their skills and jobs in the local community.”
More than a community center
Similarly, while the YMCA of Dane County had to suspend its programs and close all of its facilities, the community center has not stopped helping its constituents, according to Scott Shoemaker, the Senior Director of Marketing and Communications.
Shoemaker emphasized the YMCA is more than a “gym and swim” — the community center also promotes itself as a social gathering point for many.
In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the YMCA created eight free food pick up sites. Individuals who are 18 years or younger are eligible to pick up two meals a day from 11:30-12:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The YMCA, on average, serves 100 meals a day through this program.
Individuals of all ages can pick up a meal at one of the three drive-through locations from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday — of which 125 meals are being provided each day.
“We’re playing to our strengths which is just serving people,” Shoemaker said.
As the largest childcare provider in Dane County, the YMCA also created an emergency childcare service for kids of health care workers and first responders.
The service runs at the Sun Prairie and West YMCA in Madison with each facility limited to 50 kids at any given time. With the facilities closed to the public, the programs give a space for children to play while practicing social distancing measures as much as possible.
“Our health care professionals and first responders are especially stressed during times like these,” Shoemaker said. “And with so many things closed down, they don’t have a place to necessarily care for their kids. In order to serve the public, they need childcare for their children.”
Additionally, the YMCA started a senior calling program where staff members call elderly community members routinely throughout the day to check-in and chat to break up the monotony of self-quarantine and provide optimism during the tough times.
With a large and dedicated senior membership base, the YMCA made it a priority to keep in contact with senior members who can become more “socially and physically isolated” as higher-risk individuals to COVID-19.
“It’s a simple thing, but the employees that are doing the calls find it very therapeutic for our members and for themselves just to have a little daily burst of positive conversation with someone,” Shoemaker said.
Feeding Southern Wisconsin
At the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, changes to its business model have been implemented for the foodbank to adapt to the needs of its customers.
Prior to the pandemic, the foodbank’s partner agencies could choose from the organization’s millions of pounds of food stored in its warehouse, according to Kristopher Tazelaar, Director of Marketing and Communications.
Partner agencies — which include various food pantries, shelters and meal sites that serve families and individuals — could then place an order for specific products and customers would then be able to pick their food right off the shelf.
Now, almost all of Second Harvest’s food is pre-boxed to reduce lines for curbside pickup and provide food to as many people as possible.
Previously, roughly 80 percent of the food was donated and 20 percent was purchased. Now, the foodbank has flipped the script, spending more and donating less to maintain its quality of service.
“In order for us to meet the incredible increase in demand, but then also provide a reliable source of food and still try to maintain this idea of providing variety to those we serve, we’ve essentially had to flip that equation on its head,” Tazelaar said.
Second Harvest — which serves 16 counties in Wisconsin — is also preparing for the potential closure of their partner agencies. These agencies, along with Second Harvest itself, rely heavily on volunteers, many of whom or over the age of 65, the individuals most susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
But a strong community response has filled the void.
“The community is stepping up in terms of both volunteer time and dollars,” Tazelaar said. “It’s been a tremendously positive response. And we can’t be more grateful for the response that we have gotten.”
In anticipation of partner agencies closing their doors, mobile pantries have become a key component to the foodbank’s efforts. A semi-truck staffed by a group of local volunteers sets up shop in locations where food remains scarce, creating a farmers market-like environment for individuals to pick out food.
“If we feel that there is a need that’s not being met, we will bring in a mobile pantry,” Tazelaar said. “The idea is to supplement the work of our pantry partners.”
In 2018-’19, Second Harvest and partner agencies provided 14.2 million meals. And while the food bank experienced between a 75 to 100 percent increase in demand for food over the past year, the demand is only expected to increase.
“You’re gonna see this need for many months to come as we not only roll through what’s happening with the virus but roll also through the economic impact of the virus,” Tazelaar said.“We are grateful for the unbelievable support that we’ve had but that support we are going to need that [support] for the foreseeable future.”