The pandemic that forces people apart can also strengthen and draw them together.

That is the common thread that three different nonprofit organizations shared in their experience of the past year. The three are among the roughly 1,700 nonprofits taking part in this year’s GiveBIG fundraising campaign.

Although they adapted to the hardship and harsh demands of COVID-19 in similar ways, the three groups have far-reaching and very different goals of creating profound change — one in the city, one in the nation and one on the planet.

Changing the city: Mary’s Place

With the philosophy that “no one’s child should sleep outside,” Mary’s Place has provided safe, inclusive shelter and a comprehensive array of assistive services that support women, children and families on their journey out of homelessness, for more than two decades. More than one-third of the people who use the program are immigrants or refugees.

The pandemic forced the closure of some of the group’s smaller shelters, resulting in a loss of 300 beds. To meet the increased need, Mary’s Place relied on facilities in South Lake Union, White Center, Northshore, Burien and the new Mary’s Place Family Center in The Regrade, a shelter built in one of Amazon’s Seattle Campus buildings that opened its doors in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.

Amid the hardship, there was also an “overwhelming” wave of kindness and community spirit as people donated money, food, handmade face coverings, hand sanitizer and technology to the shelter’s guests, said Chief Communications Officer Linda Mitchell.

“The impacts of the digital divide became very apparent,” she said. “Families without access to Wi-Fi, computers or a desk found it challenging to get the resources they needed and their children connected to classes. From day one, despite their own concerns and fears about the impact of the pandemic, the community reached out to offer assistance.”

Changing the nation: Northwest Immigrant Rights Project

The NWIRP provides pro bono legal services to help thousands of immigrants in Washington navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system so they can apply for asylum or other forms of immigration protection. 

“As difficult as COVID has been for all of us, we recognize that immigrants of color have suffered far more negative impacts than the average Washingtonian,” said Interim Development and Communications Supervisor Raul R. Alvarez.

Despite the pandemic, NWIRP has solidified its purpose and continued to significantly expand its legal staff in the past year, thanks largely to individual donors, Alvarez said.

Many of NWIRP’s legal challenges involve detainees at the Northwest Detention Center, a large Tacoma facility privately operated on behalf of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. With a capacity of more than 1,500, the center is one of the largest immigration facilities in the country.

So far this year, all NWIRP offices (in Seattle, Tacoma, Granger and Wenatchee) have remained closed to walk-in visits, with staff continuing to meet with clients remotely, either over the phone or via videoconferencing.

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Alvarez said the fight for immigrant justice is reaching a turning point this year.

“This is a critical moment in the immigrant rights movement,” he said. 

Changing the planet: 350 Seattle

Nonprofit group 350 Seattle is dedicated to working toward climate justice by organizing people to make deep systemic change. In response to the scientific evidence of harmful global warming, the group’s initiatives focus on resisting the fossil fuel industry, building just and equitable solutions to the climate crisis, and holding polluters and their enablers accountable.

The pandemic did nothing to change those values, and if anything it strengthened them, said Interim Executive Director Valerie Costa. She joined 350 Seattle six years ago, and has worked for the last decade with dozens of nonprofit organizations around the country through her consulting business, Aril Consulting, specializing in fundraising and organizational development.

“Nothing stopped [because of the pandemic]. We had to slow down, regroup, change our tactics, for sure. But so did everyone else,” she said. “We focused on what we could do online. This made us stronger and more connected with other social change efforts. Like everyone else, we got very familiar with Zoom. I’d say after the initial scramble to adapt, we engaged even more people in our work and we expanded it.”

She said online programming has drawn more participants than in-person events because there was “a thirst for training on nonviolent direct action over the summer.”

In February, dozens of activists with 350 Seattle inflated a 50-foot replica of a pipeline and staged a mock oil spill outside a downtown bank branch to protest Line 3, a 1,000-mile oil pipeline between Canada and Wisconsin. At another bank, they staged wildfire-themed street theater. The groups followed COVID-safe protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing.

There is no reason to believe that level of civic involvement and commitment will change in the coming year, Costa said.