In the times before COVID-19, thousands of seniors gathered regularly for a freshly-cooked lunch at 18 locations across King County. The Community Dining program, run by the nonprofit Sound Generations, was a way for older adults living alone or without strong social networks to see peers and get involved in other activities taking place at the sites, often senior or community centers.

Suddenly, that became impossible. Health officials made everyone aware that gathering inside is the riskiest thing people can do in the pandemic, and seniors are among the most vulnerable. Community and senior centers shut down.

But the Community Dining program didn’t stop. Far from it.

Sound Generations turned it into a pickup and delivery service. The agency repurposed vans for delivery previously used to take seniors shopping or to appointments. It improvised.

When a Beacon Hill church closed for in-person activities, the American Polynesian Organization had no place to cook the more than 100 meals served there each week in partnership with Sound Generations. Organization business manager Marivic “Grace” Correa started making the meals in her Everett restaurant, Gracie’s Cuisine, and driving them to Beacon Hill, where volunteers take them from the church’s porch to clients’ cars.

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Community Dining, which complements a separate Sound Generations Meals on Wheels program for homebound individuals, typically serves around 139,000 meals a year. With more seniors scared to leave home and wanting prepared meals, the program is on track this year to serve 200,000.

The Seattle Times kicks off its 42nd annual Fund For The Needy campaign at an extraordinary time. As witnessed by Sound Generations, one of 12 nonprofits benefiting from the fund, the pandemic has vastly increased needs. Seniors are fearful and isolated. Workers have lost jobs or seen their hours reduced, giving rise to hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians collecting unemployment insurance.

Food is scarce. Eviction looms. The digital divide leaves many struggling in a newly remote world.

A line of people waiting to pick up food  stretches around Hopelink’s Kirkland warehouse. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
A line of people waiting to pick up food stretches around Hopelink’s Kirkland warehouse. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

At the same time, the novel coronavirus has forced agencies to change the way they do things to meet those needs. The nonprofits’ efforts — from matching children with mentors and helping those with developmental delays, to providing shelter to people who are homeless to offering mental health counseling — seem to be succeeding. That’s in large part because of increased government funding and community generosity.

“We have seen a tremendous outpouring of support,” said Terry Pottmeyer, interim executive director of the Atlantic Street Center, a century-old organization with programs for new parents, kinship care providers, domestic violence survivors and more. The agency has gotten more than $400,000 to respond to the pandemic, the majority through private donations, Pottmeyer said.

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Each year, The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy raises money for 12 charities that help children, families and senior citizens. Throughout the season, we’re telling the stories of people and organizations who make a difference in the lives of thousands, and the impact donors can have. 

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When Hopelink, which runs five food banks in North and East King County, held two donation drives in the spring, cars at one point lined up for half a mile to drop off goods. The agency received an average 100 pounds of food every minute, 48,000 pounds in all.

“It was pretty awesome,” said Hopelink spokesperson Kris Betker.

Hopelink volunteers Deanna Merzlak, Laurie Nelson and Susan Flagg (clockwise from center) work on an assembly line in Kirkland to fill boxes with food, including peanut butter, that are handed out to those in need. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Hopelink volunteers Deanna Merzlak, Laurie Nelson and Susan Flagg (clockwise from center) work on an assembly line in Kirkland to fill boxes with food, including peanut butter, that are handed out to those in need. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Times has set a goal of $1.7 million for this year’s Fund For The Needy campaign, which is driven by reader donations ranging from a few dollars to several thousand.

“Our annual Fund For The Needy campaign marries The Seattle Times’ mission of community service with the extraordinary generosity of our readers in a way that serves thousands in need every year,” said Times President Alan Fisco.

“More so than ever, those needs have skyrocketed. I understand this is a challenging financial time for many, but I ask our readers to be as generous as they can to help our neighbors who are struggling. Every penny goes directly to 12 agencies that are doing exceptional work in very trying times. “

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Like some who got stimulus money from the federal government, Anna Berg and husband Ian Gunn decided others needed it more than they did. Their freelance work in sports broadcasting, which normally involves traveling around the world, was sharply curtailed because of COVID-19, but Berg said they had put aside money for a rainy day.

This was it. The couple, who divide their time between Shelton and Seattle, split the government relief money between political causes and the Fund For The Needy, contributing to a head start for the latest campaign.

Staying flexible

“When COVID first hit in mid-March, it changed everything for us, except it didn’t really change our ability to serve the community,” said Betker of Hopelink.

She cited a particularly hard adjustment. “One of the things that we’re most proud of is that our food banks are set up like grocery stores. Clients come in, they get a shopping cart and they can go and choose from the shelves.”

It had normalized and dignified the sometimes embarrassing experience of visiting a food bank, but it was no longer safe during the pandemic.

Hopelink shifted to a more traditional model, handing out pre-packed boxes of food. Volunteers also deliver food to those unable to get to the sites.

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“It’s not ideal,” Betker said of the change. “But it’s working really well.” The agency has been serving about 5,000 households a month.

Sadie (who declined to give her last name) holds onto a turkey for Thanksgiving, at top, while heading to her car after picking up food for her family at Hopelink, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Kirkland. Sadie said she is a single mom living in Kirkland with three teenagers who were at home busy with online learning. “I have everything (for Thanksgiving dinner). I am so happy,” she said before driving off. 215659 (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Sadie (who declined to give her last name) holds onto a turkey for Thanksgiving, at top, while heading to her car after picking up food for her family at Hopelink, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 in Kirkland. Sadie said she is a single mom living in Kirkland with three teenagers who were at home busy with online learning. “I have everything (for Thanksgiving dinner). I am so happy,” she said before driving off. 215659 (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Meanwhile, Hopelink dramatically stepped up its eviction-prevention program as income losses make it hard for many families to make rent.

Gov. Jay Inslee enacted a moratorium on evictions that was recently extended until the end of the year. While that keeps people from being thrown out of their homes, “it’s not rent forgiveness,” pointed out Meghan Altimore, Hopelink’s vice president of community services. “What we don’t want is someone coming out of the moratorium in January with $8,000 or $9,000 owed.”

Between March 25 and Nov. 12, Hopelink provided more than $1 million in rent assistance to roughly 900 households — about triple the amount of money and households during that period last year.

Hidden needs

The pandemic has exacerbated needs not always visibly apparent. The requisite lockdown has meant domestic violence survivors are at home with their abusers much of the time, limiting their ability to seek help and escape, said Atlantic Street Center spokesperson Gabriel Mathews.

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Meanwhile, there are indications that domestic violence has increased amid the stress of economic hardship and isolation. Across King County, there were 13 domestic violence-related homicides in the first nine months of 2020, nearly twice the number in each of the past two years, according to data from the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Atlantic Street continues to offer therapy, legal advocacy and help with escape planning in what became a stand-alone program in 2019 that is rapidly expanding. Like most agencies’ programs during the pandemic, it now relies on virtual communication. Finding privacy to talk, so that an abuser cannot hear, is a challenge, Mathews said.

Being home nearly all the time is hard for a lot of others, too. Mary Mitchell, who oversees Atlantic Street’s program supporting more than 30 kinship care providers, says one woman in the program lives in a one-bedroom house with her mother and a niece and nephew she is raising.

The kids are remote learning at home, which in a small space presents complications. “You’ve really got to angle your camera right,” Mitchell said. Otherwise, it could pick up a family member passing by on the way to the kitchen or bathroom. Mitchell said they’ve discussed virtual backgrounds but the children’s school may not allow them.

Like other agencies, Atlantic Street has been providing technical assistance to navigate the shift of just about everything to online. The nonprofit recently gave out 100 laptops, and has helped families connect with digital platforms used by schools.

At a recent support group meeting on Zoom for kinship care providers, many of the dozen women attending expressed frustration, and not just because of technical problems. They spoke of problems communicating with teachers, fidgety kids who sometimes watched YouTube instead of doing schoolwork, and the stress of trying to oversee the children’s studies all day while in some cases also taking care of elderly parents.

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“It’s sort of been a disaster,” said one. Another said she had just written to her kids’ teachers to say she was pulling them out of online learning and wanted paper packets instead.

Mitchell, who once took care of two grandchildren herself, commiserated and offered ideas. Had people tried fidget toys? What about tutoring offered through the King County Library System? She said she would look into tools that could be used to limit children’s use of the internet.

She also wanted to interject some fun in their lives.

Every year, the kinship care program has held holiday events. And so it will this year. Mitchell announced she plans to give away gift certificates for Thanksgiving turkeys and have the women pick up wreath-making materials they can assemble in their homes.

She said she was thinking about using a delivery service to get meals to everyone for a virtual Christmas party, in addition to the gingerbread house she would find a way to get to each family.

“What are we going to do about Santa?” Mitchell asked.

Well, she said, thinking it out, maybe they could still have one and make use of Zoom’s breakout rooms, which allow small groups to interact separately. That way, even in the middle of a pandemic, kids could have a private word with Santa Claus.