Unemployment, underfunding and still trying to serve: Volunteer organizations during COVID-19

Three Los Angeles organizations share the changes they have made in the wake of the pandemic

With the arrival of new safety recommendations from the CDC to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, volunteer organizations around the world are considering how they can help those in need without endangering themselves, their volunteers, and the communities they serve.

Philanthropy groups across Los Angeles face a lack of volunteers as people practice social distancing and shelter-in-place. Coupled with skyrocketing unemployment rates, they fear that funding may soon disappear if donors lose their jobs or no longer have money to give.

Operation Blankets of Love (OBOL) was founded in 2008 by Eileen and Brad Smulson, with the mission to “improve the health of homeless animals and increase their chances for survival and adoption,” according to their website. They work across the globe, collecting and donating pet food, blankets, leashes, and other supplies to shelters, sanctuaries and people experiencing homelessness.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, OBOL has suspended all scheduled outreach events. In the meantime, the Smulsons are communicating with volunteers to determine how they can safely continue their mission. Only three of their usual 20 volunteers have been able to help, doing paperwork at home or picking up donations from drop-off sites.

“One of our volunteers, she’s in her 70s, called me and gave me instructions to drop the papers off on her doorstep,” Eileen Smulson - one of the organization’s founders - said in a phone interview. “Then I stood about 20 feet away from the door so she could get them and I could tell her what to do with them.”

OBOL estimates that they have collected enough animal supplies to last about two months, but Smulson fears that fundraising in the coming weeks will only get harder.

“It takes funds to run the organization,” Smulson explained. “If people aren’t working, they might not be able to donate.”

In past years, Smulson received a grant from The Annenberg Foundation - last year they received $10,000 to support animals affected by the wildfires. This year, however, funding was cut off. On March 27, Smulson received an email stating that the Annenberg Foundation was unable to fulfill her grant request due to the pandemic. All online grant requests were temporarily suspended, and grantmaking would be by invitation only.

“I wrote [the Annenberg Foundation] a letter this morning, making a plea and explaining how much it’ll hurt Blankets of Love,” Smulson says. “There are other foundations that will be giving during this crisis as well and I’m afraid that we will be on the backburner.”

Blankets of Love is far from the only organization affected by COVID-19. The People Concern is one of Los Angeles County’s largest social service agencies. The organization provides for people experiencing homelessness and domestic violence by offering interim housing, mental and medical health care, and wellness programs.

While volunteers assist with food service, donation distribution, and clerical work at the organization, two weeks ago, their leadership asked them to stay home.

“We felt that we couldn’t be responsible for managing volunteers, staff and clients’ wellbeing during this time,” said John Maceri, the CEO of The People Concern.

They also had to decide which of their services were essential. Interim housing programs, money management programs and access centers - which provide food, clothing, and medical services had to stay open. Services deemed nonessential, such as arts programs and the wellness center on Skid Row, are temporarily paused until the pandemic ends.

The organization is also struggling as staff members are forced to remove themselves from the workforce because they belong to an “at-risk” population -- those over the age of 65, anyone with underlying health conditions -- or because their children are home from school.

“We’re allowing staff members to use their accrued leave time, but we can’t continue to pay staff indefinitely,” Maceri said. “We could be facing some serious issues moving into the future.”

As the pandemic continues, The People Concern will rely largely on financial contributions and donations of other products like hygiene kits, which can be assembled at home and dropped off at locations in the Los Angeles area.

“People living on the streets feel abandoned,” Maceri states. “It’s important for the community to know that whatever level of anxiety we’re feeling, people who are experiencing homelessness are experiencing greater anxiety.

Like The People Concern, Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA) has also had to adapt to life under the pandemic. CASA’s volunteers advocate to judges in the best interests of over 251,000 at-risk children nationwide.

According to Wendelyn Julien, the CEO of CASA’s Los Angeles chapter, the organization was better prepared than many, as most of their work was already done remotely. However, there are new challenges that come with COVID-19.

“Our volunteers can no longer see the children in person,” Julien said. “They also usually go to court with the children, but court hearings have been suspended except for emergency matters.”

Julien is also concerned about how children will be affected by the lack of in-person contact with their CASA volunteers and explains that COVID-19 may cause an uptick in child abuse and domestic violence.

“It’s a time of high stress and the children are at home all the time. They’re out of the line of sight of mandated reporters – teachers, coaches, childcare workers, even neighbors,” Julien says. “We don’t like not being able to visit our children and the risk that creates for them.”

However, Julien managed to extract a silver lining from a difficult situation.

“I think after all this has passed it will help me be better able to explain why we need people to volunteer,” she said. “We can’t just wait for the government to intervene.”

“It’s a human way of looking at an overarching societal issue that needs fixing – we need to look at people as individuals,” she said.