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Goodwill of the Finger Lakes and Lifespan Extend a Lifeline in a Time of Need

Lifespan and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes serve as examples of two organizations that mobilized quickly to respond to this crisis, leveraging resources and partnerships to address many of these essential challenges for those in need.

March 13, 2020, marked a pivotal turning point in the Greater Rochester community. For weeks leading up to that day, information had been swirling about the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating with reports of the first positive cases of the virus in Monroe County.

Rochester’s nonprofit organizations faced great challenges before, shoring up their infrastructures and services to address critical needs in the community in day-to-day operations relative to mental health resources, employment, housing, food scarcity, and so much more. At the heightened onset of the pandemic, it became clear, very quickly, that this would be a prolonged challenge the community would face collectively, laying bare the critical supports most in need for many people in the short- and long-term.

Lifespan and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes serve as examples of two organizations that mobilized quickly to respond to this crisis, leveraging resources and partnerships to address many of these essential challenges for those in need.

Lifespan President and CEO Ann Marie Cook remembers attending a meeting at United Way that afternoon as part of the Systems Integration Project, which aims to establish connections between local health, education, and human services organizations by building better access to technology, resources, and information through an integrated network. Lifespan, which provides essential services, education, and training to more than 40,000 adults ages 60 and older, as well as caregivers, was suddenly fielding an influx of calls from older adults concerned about access to food, prescriptions, and health care services. Lifespan quickly tapped into the collective network to problem-solve, putting systems in place to coordinate food deliveries and match adults with telehealth technology and providers.

“You had community leaders saying, ‘We’re going to step up and do what we need to do’ to help the community,” said Cook, crediting the team’s immediate response to the public.

The most urgent need was food access. The very next week, Foodlink reached out to help with supplying food boxes, and Lifespan staff coordinated trips to grocery stores to collect options that catered to specific dietary needs or requirements. Many seniors also lacked transportation to collect the meals or stayed home out of an abundance of caution if immunocompromised or within a more vulnerable age population.

Therefore, Lifespan also enlisted support in partnership with Medical Motors and Goodwill of the Finger Lakes’ 211/LIFE LINE program, a non-judgmental and non-emergency human service and information referral program available via phone (by dialing 2-1-1), web, text, or online chat. Through 211/LIFE LINE, calls from adults age 60 or older were dispatched to Lifespan for further resources and information. Goodwill also provided a docking and distribution area for Lifespan and Medical Motors to facilitate deliveries.

At this point, the pandemic had also begun stirring feelings of fear, anxiety, and isolation in many, including seniors, causing organizations to put additional support behind mental health resources. Lifespan worked with United Way to enlist volunteers to facilitate recurring check-in calls with older adults and organized more than 2,000 cards created by school kids, which were sent to nursing homes in the area.

Mental health and food scarcity were also consistent concerns in calls fielded by Goodwill’s 211/LIFE LINE center.

“We’re like triage,” Goodwill of the Finger Lakes President and CEO Jennifer Lake said “Similar to a hospital where there can be an entire host of issues, the doctor is ultimately there to figure out what to address first. We help individuals prioritize what they need from an immediate need to a short-term and long-term solution by walking them through what to do, with an unbiased referral process that connects them with the appropriate resources within access to them.”

Like many other human-service organizations in the area, Goodwill mobilized quickly, collaborating with other nonprofit organizations in the county, including Foodlink, within a week of when the pandemic set in during March.

About one-third of the calls they received were from first-time individuals who didn’t have access to food pantries or public assistance prior to the pandemic. By talking to an encouraging voice, 211/LIFE LINE hopes to reduce feelings of shame, fear, or anxiety that can often be associated with asking for help—providing facts over fear or misinformation.

“Among the fear and the anxiety and the stress that’s been caused by this virus, it was really important that 211 be that central resource so people didn’t have to remember seven different people to call,” Lake said. “They could call one number and get all of their needs addressed.”

Since March, Goodwill of the Finger Lakes and Lifespan have each seen a significant increase in the volume of calls and queries, demonstrating the tremendous needs from a community perspective. From March to July, 211/LIFE LINE received more than 43,000 calls compared to just over 12,000 during the same period in 2019. Similarly, between March and June, Lifespan delivered more than 4,000 boxes of groceries and provided more than 3,500 hot meals to older adults.

In a pandemic trajectory that’s still unknown, both teams credit the steadfast support and collective efforts of their teams, volunteers, partner organizations, and community leaders that paired and leveraged strengths for more holistic, robust solutions.

“Anyone who had resources really put their heads together to come up with a way that we could serve so many people,” Lake said. “This recovery is going to take a long time in our community, and we wouldn’t have been able to help as many people as we did in a short timeframe if not for our dedicated team.”

For Cook, her biggest emotion is pride. “I’m really proud of my staff who just jumped in head-first into a situation that was unknown by their drive to help people. It gave me incredible hope that we have the ability in this community to redesign human services to better serve people.”