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Help Thy Neighbor: How Wisconsinites can ensure their community gets through the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through Wisconsin, closing schools and businesses and testing the state’s health care workforce, many people wonder how they can help — beyond staying at home to help “flatten the curve” of new infections.

What can those who are financially able to do help other people or organizations who are severely impacted by this virus? Is there anything that a regular person can do to help health care workers? How else can we help the folks at the front lines of the pandemic? Here are some ideas for doing good.

Feed the hungry

The Food Pantry of Waukesha County typically serves about 50 families per day, according to executive director Karen Tredwell. That number now ranges from 63 to 148 families daily during the pandemic. The fewest people visited on March 25, the first day of the state Department of Health Services’ Safer at Home order. Tredwell worries people did not realize pantries remained open.

“In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Health (Services) has asked food pantries and food banks to stay open,” Tredwell said. “We’re trying to get the word out.”

The pantry accepts cash donations, and many grocery stores have bins to accept donated food. Cereal and canned food — such as beef stew, pasta, fruits and vegetables — are particularly useful. So are volunteers, especially people who are less likely to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms. Higher-risk populations include people older than 65, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women.

Help the elderly and disabled

Feeding people who are isolated has never been easy, particularly in rural areas. The pandemic only exacerbates that challenge, said Joel Gottsacker, department head of the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Oneida County.

Congress’s response to COVID-19 will allow more people to sign up for Meals on Wheels, the popular home delivery program for the elderly and disabled that the Oneida County center runs locally, Gottsacker said. The center is “always interested” in cash donations, he added, and donors may earmark funds for the meals program.

In Oneida County and elsewhere, Meals on Wheels relies on volunteers. Gottsacker said about 100 people volunteer in his county, with 25 to 30 delivering meals each day. The program will need additional volunteers — particularly younger ones — as eligibility expands.

“Most of our volunteers are older adults,” Gottsacker said. “So we’re anticipating that they’re going to start needing to socially isolate as well.”

House the homeless

Groups that serve people who lack stable housing could also use help. Patrick Vanderburgh, president of Milwaukee Rescue Mission, said the nonprofit’s shelters for men, women and families are serving 40% more people compared to last year.

“We’ve definitely seen an influx,” Vanderburgh said.

Cash donations are “always welcome,” Vanderburgh said, but the nonprofit is also looking for donations. The most needed items right now: face masks, thermometers and men’s underwear. The shelter could also use toilet paper, “like everyone else,” said Vanderburgh, chuckling. Most shelters need similar items. For guidance, donors might consider what items their own family needs; shelters could probably use those things, too.

Support child care

Child care needs loom large since the schools are now shuttered across the state. Health care workers, first responders and others with jobs deemed essential face particular challenges. Many YMCAs around the state have pivoted to providing emergency child care. That includes the La Crosse Area YMCA, where Jennie Melde is director of culture and youth development.

While the center remains open for emergency child care, its overall enrollment has plummeted, and “We’re looking at huge numbers of layoffs and furloughs of our staff.”

Financial donations would be the most useful. The center also is offering financial assistance to families in need who were not expecting to pay for child care. The center could also use arts and crafts supplies.

“Anybody who’s looking to help support our essential workers could give to any YMCA or any child care center who’s trying to operate emergency child care right now,” Melde said. “There’s only so many paper plate projects you can do and then you run out of paper plates.”

Help health care workers

Many people have asked how to support frontline health care workers. Teri Wilczek, chief philanthropy officer for Marshfield Clinic Health System, said hospitals around the country have similar needs during the pandemic. The biggest: personal protective equipment. The health system has partnered with local businesses who have stockpiles of items like face shields, gloves, protective eyewear and N95 masks.

“Literally every mask matters,”Wilczek said.

The health system’s foundation recently called for hand-sewn masks — to protect patients who enter clinics. The foundation has since received more than 3,000. But it needs probably 10 times that many. Other health systems have said they do not plan to use cloth masks, which offer less protection than those health care workers use. Marshfield, like health systems across the state, is also seeking financial donations for meals, comfort items and other support to their health care workforce.

Support local businesses

Many leaders are asking residents to support local businesses. One Madison effort helps local businesses — and hungry neighbors. The Artisan Grain Collaborative offers a way to feed people while supporting farmers, millers and bakers. The collaborative’s “Neighbor Loaves” initiative encourages shoppers to visit the websites of participating bakeries and buy a “neighbor loaf” of bread to be baked, sliced and donated to an organization focused on feeding communities.

Said Alyssa Hartman, executive director of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, “It’s a way that people who may have a little extra cash to spend can take a very simple concrete action from the convenience of their home, which is where we all should be right now.”

Wisconsinites in need of assistance can use 211 Wisconsin to connect with nonprofit and government services in the area, or call 877-947-2211.

Bram Sable-Smith

John Hart and Amber Arnold

The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Wisconsin Watch

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