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East County Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 2 months ago

Volunteering in the Age of  COVID-19

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The pandemic forced dozens of nonprofits to bench hundreds of senior volunteers. Some organizations in Sarasota and Manatee counties are still struggling to fill the void one year later.
by: Heidi Kurpiela Managing Editor

Nearly every Friday for 10 years, Sandy Mongiello was the first face people saw when they arrived at Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue. As a volunteer greeter, the 66-year-old Heritage Harbour resident was responsible for holding down the welcome center at the front of the 8-acre Lorraine Road campus. 

Chatty, newly retired and gaga for dogs, Mongiello was a natural concierge. She fielded giddy questions from adoptive families in search of the perfect pooch and offered resources and a sympathetic ear to families struggling with loss and other heartbreak. Sometimes she’d walk the dogs and help tend to incoming puppies, but most of her six-hour shift was spent behind the sign-in desk. She felt useful there. Plus, she says, she inexplicably liked the “wet-dog smell” perfuming the inside of the 300-square-foot building.

“I did it for the animals,” Mongiello says. “Some of them would come in shaking, scared to death with their tails between their legs … and you’d know a special person would come in and see past the fear and the things people think are homely — the snaggleteeth and buggy eyes. You’d get the follow-up pictures and emails, and you’d see how an animal can blossom with the right person.”

The grandmother of four, whose previous health issues and business trips made it difficult to adopt a dog of her own, also developed an affection for her fellow volunteers — a quirky, motley crew of dog and cat people that she jokingly describes as “a wonderfully dysfunctional family with a common goal.”

Had the spread of COVID-19 not forced Nate’s directors, Dari and Rob Oglesby, to pull their 200-plus volunteers off the schedule, Mongiello would still be signing in visitors, straining under her mask to get a whiff of her second favorite smell: puppy breath.

“We all thought we’d go back in a couple months,” Mongiello says. “We’re going on a year now, and we still don’t really see an end. The fact that we’re not there to help with the workload has  created a sense of guilt because we know how small the staff is. I miss that feeling of doing something valuable. … I didn’t realize how important it was to me until I didn’t have it anymore.”

 

THE KINDEST CUT

Although the Oglesbys made a prudent choice, they still feel like they benched their most valuable players in the fourth quarter.

With more people working from home and traveling less, pet adoptions are soaring across the U.S. This uptick, Mongiello says, comes as no surprise. (“The world has never needed animals more,” she says. “For a lot of people, their only companion is a pet.”)

Despite being open by appointment only, Nate’s still adopted out 1,805 pets in 2020 — just a couple hundred fewer than the rescue’s typical yearly average. Most impressive of all: The organization did it with a fraction of the workforce.

Prior to the pandemic, the no-kill shelter was powered mostly by volunteers. Cage cleaning. Dog walking. Adoption counseling. Animal transport. Community outreach. Laundry and kitchen chores —  all of it executed by an army of unpaid 60-somethings (mostly) that were thrown out of rotation for their own protection.

The few individuals permitted to stay on have been relegated to doing clinic runs and Petco cat adoptions, leaving the rest of the work to just five paid employees, who at the same time are contending with a $10 million campus expansion currently underway.

“Everyone’s losing their minds,” says Rob Oglesby, the director of development. “Tempers are flaring. The staff is stressed. The volunteers feel stuck. It’s all this wait-and-see conjecture. It’ll be nice to get back to the old days, but we have to be careful. Our volunteers are older. Our staff is small. If someone gets COVID-19, we have to shut down — and then what happens to the animals?”

Drastic as it felt to some volunteers, the precautions were worth it. The rescue made it through 2020 without a single case of COVID-19.

It’s a Catch-22 facing a lot of nonprofits right now: The people most inclined to lend a helping hand are the very people we’re protecting. Volunteerism by its nature is a retirement hobby, but no retirement hobby is worth catching the coronavirus.

“It’s been extremely difficult for seniors who are homebound,” says Lynn Rasys, the executive director of the Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation. “Volunteering is a large part of their lives, a way of giving back and getting out of the house and socializing. Not only that, we need them. They’ve been hugely instrumental to supporting our foundation.”

The Lakewood Ranch-based foundation, which provides nonmedical financial assistance to cancer patients, processes close to 4,000 applications a year with the help of a stable of 25 volunteers. When Rasys had to ask them to stop coming into the office, she feared her small staff might flounder in their absence. Or worse, that her most loyal right-hand people would eventually lose interest in the nonprofit and not return when given the all-clear.

The opposite happened, something that probably should have happened a long time ago.

In response to so many offers to help from home, Rasys and her team decided to create a virtual volunteer program, dumping the usual clerical work into a shared cloud that all of them could access remotely. The initiative garnered the attention of FCS’s 400 other statewide volunteers, i.e., those people no longer able to offer patient support inside FCS treatment centers.

“Before, you had to live near our office in order to assist the foundation,” says Rasys, whose team now also includes many of those “furloughed” clinic volunteers. “Now it doesn’t matter where you live. We’ve got a few volunteers who were living out of state and one volunteer who’s a medical student in Puerto Rico. That’s definitely been one positive thing to come out of COVID-19.”

Not every charitable organization can be this flexible, though.

Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee issued a halt to all volunteer work for people 65 and up just as the demand for home deliveries spiked by 60% in the county. The nonprofit’s flagship program, which provides hot meals to elderly and disabled residents across Manatee County, was nearly destroyed by the directive. (Nearly all of its 64 routes were covered by senior drivers.)

Fortunately, widespread business and school closures in the early weeks of the pandemic made it possible for an influx of younger, less-at-risk individuals to help pick up the slack. “It’s been a bit harder to find volunteers since things opened up more,” Vice President of Development Amy Towery says.

Meals on Wheels Plus has just 50 employees spread across several large programs. In addition to delivering meals and running The Food Bank of Manatee, it also operates the Daybreak Adult Day Center in Lakewood Ranch and three Friendship Dining Centers that have since been closed due to COVID-19.

“The number of people we’re serving has skyrocketed,” Towery says. “We’re having to do more without the people we were used to leaning on.”

Many of these sidelined drivers are eager to get back on the road. Some of them drove two or three days a week. Clients were used to them.

“We’ve tried to come up with ways they can still help from home — sending clients greeting cards or making reassuring phone calls — but COVID-19 has really modified a lot of the opportunities available,” Towery says. “It’s been a tough adjustment for all of us.”

 

THE NEW NORMAL

Some organizations are starting to ease volunteers back into brick-and-mortar roles.

More than 800 nonprofits serve Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. They need help no matter what. Volunteers are their lifeblood.

Mischa Kirby, the vice president of strategy and communications at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, says plenty of local organizations are still actively seeking volunteers. Whenever people ask how they can help, Kirby directs them to the Community Foundation’s searchable database, TheGivingPartner.org, where 60 different agencies are currently looking for the donation of time.   

“Charitable giving [of time and money] is in our community DNA,” Kirby says. “There are still opportunities for people who are looking.”

Even major health care nonprofits are easing off on restrictions. In August, Tidewell Hospice reopened its volunteer-run thrift store and allowed some of its 1,200 daily volunteers back into facilities — barely. Greeters wearing face masks and shields are now permitted to answer doors, screen and sign in visitors, and run temperature checks at some hospice houses.

Antoinette Muirhead, who volunteered at Tidewell’s Lakewood Ranch Hospice House for three years, says that her responsibilities look nothing like they did before COVID-19, but that’s OK.

“It used to be if you saw someone having a hard time, you could say, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ Now you say, ‘I’m giving you a hug in my heart.’” Muirhead says.

An oncology massage therapist and ceramic artist, Muirhead was working at Florida Cancer Specialists and volunteering at Tidewell and Daybreak Adult Day Center when the pandemic hit. At Daybreak, she helped with arts and crafts projects, and at Tidewell, she gave patients foot massages.

Last March, she lost all three of these posts in one fell swoop, including the place where she sold her pottery, Bok Tower Gardens in Polk County, until Tidewell called her back at the end of the summer.

The Parrish resident says she’s thrilled to be of service again in whatever capacity she’s needed.

“Sure, it’s different now or a new normal, as we’re calling it,” Muirhead says. “But it’s not about me. The nurses are so busy. If what I do for a couple hours makes their lives easier, I’m there.”

Mongiello says she feels exactly the same way about having to wait for her position to open back up at Nate’s.

“As a volunteer, you start to selfishly think: ‘Oh, no! They forgot about me.’ But there’s so much more to consider than your small role,” Mongiello says. “Dari and Rob have continued the mission through all of this. They’re saving dogs and cats, and that’s what matters most.”

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