Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “Stepping Up.”
King County has taken on a new responsibility during the coronavirus crisis: matchmaker.
The King County Donations Connector website advertises itself as providing “ways to help and get help during COVID-19,” and it does this by matching donors and recipients who might otherwise struggle to connect.
Those donors and recipients can thank the county employees who temporarily left their regular jobs to join the donations management team, starting the program from scratch.
The workers who joined the team say the chance to help the community, and the opportunity to see firsthand the outpouring of support from so many, has been uplifting.
“This experience allowed me to realize that at the basic human level, people want to help people, regardless of what is going on politically,” said Rey Sugui, a 21-year county employee who works in intergovernmental relations for the Department of Local Services, Roads Division. “Time and time again, people were (saying), ‘I want to help. I have a box of gloves, I have a box of masks. How can I get this to the county and to the people in need?’ That is what the donations management team is really about, connecting resources to those in need.”
King County activated its Emergency Operations Center for COVID-19 response Feb. 28. Offers from the community to donate began streaming in shortly after.
“There were some big companies offering to donate goods and supplies and services to us, but we didn’t have a mechanism in the county to accept these kind of offers,” said Brendan McCluskey, director of the Office of Emergency Management for King County.
When the county executive office gave the approval to accept donations, “I took the initiative to say we will do it in Emergency Management,” McCluskey said. The Donations Management Team was born.
Janice Rahman, Senior Emergency Management Program Manager, was selected to lead the new team, “and I told her to set everything up,” McCluskey said. “‘We’re going into donations management. Figure it out and run with it.’ She took it from there, and everything else is history.”
Rahman’s group of four on the donations management team started working on the donations connector website on Monday, March 16.
“For the first few days, we really tried to learn what other efforts existed, what partnerships could be established, what gaps we could fill, and that’s what we used to formulate our strategy,” Rahman said.
On Friday, March 20, with help from the county’s IT team, the website was operational, proving wrong the notion that nothing in government happens fast.
“This was a very dynamic group, and I am proud to be part of it,” said Judy Cordova, who has worked for the county since 1996 and is an educator consultant and trainer for the King County Regional Automated Fingerprint Identification System.
The donations management team has been pleased with the results. The county said it has received and distributed 49,000 N95 respirators; 125,000 surgical masks; 105,000 gloves; nearly 900 gallons of hand sanitizer; 7,000 face shields; and 200 thermometers.
That is just a small sample of what has been donated and delivered. Rahman said there are limitations to the website platform and some communication is done via email, so much of the matchmaking is done individually by team members.
“It became kind of a game,” Sugui said. “We have these needs, where can we find the resources, and do that matching.”
Said Rahman: “The story that should be told is the relationship-building and matchmaking that you have to do to make it work. It is amazing the outpouring support of the community — from high school students and small groups to large organizations — it’s amazing to live in a county where you can have this outpouring of support. It’s very gratifying, and we’re lucky, because we get to share good news every day.”
The good news includes Facebook donating 85,000 masks, Coca-Cola donations that included 1,900 cases of Powerade sports drink to Food Lifeline, the Taiwanese community donating tablets to recovery assessment centers (supervised housing for positive COVID-19 or symptomatic individuals who need a place to recover or quarantine) and a local Lions Club donating $5,000 that was used to buy hand sanitizer. The good news also includes smaller individual donations.
Rahman credited her team “with taking this to the next level.” Joining Sugui and Cordova in the beginning was Kevin Nuechterlein, who has been with King County since 2016 and is a capital project manager at King County International Airport.
They are starting to phase out of the program to return to their previous jobs, leaving spots open for other county employees to join.
Cordova was offered a chance to join the group, “and jumped at it right away, and it was a wonderful experience from my perspective. I wanted to do something to help out and this is one way that I could.”
Nuechterlein volunteered to join the donations management team. He said the skills he gained as a project manager served him well as the group started building the donations connector website and “figuring out how to best help in the response and figuring out where the needs are and being able to pivot and find solutions for it.”
Nuechterlein said he was watching the news in early March and getting anxious about the coronavirus.
“Then this opportunity came along, and I found it was a great chance to concretely be a part of the solution in King County,” he said. “It has been a really great way to use some of the skills I have learned in a way to help the community.”
Sugui said the group worked long hours at first, but time flew by.
“It was something that we looked forward to doing,” said Sugui, who has returned to his regular job. “It was the side of the pandemic where you realize there is hope for us, for the human race, because you saw the willingness of people to step up and do what they can, whether it was a box of gloves or a truckload of Powerade. It was an amazing experience from that perspective. I am glad I live here, because this is definitely a community that looks after each other.”