Donations of money, food, time and personal protective equipment are needed as neighbors help neighbors through the coronavirus crisis

By Bram Sable-Smith

Wisconsin Public Radio/Wisconsin Watch

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through Wisconsin, closing schools and businesses and testing the state’s health care workforce, many people wonder how they can help — beyond staying at home to help “flatten the curve” of new infections.

“What can those who are financially able to do help other people or organizations who are severely impacted by this virus?” one person asked WHYsconsin, a project of Wisconsin Public Radio.

“Is there anything that a regular person can do to help health care workers?” another asked. “I’ve signed up to give blood, I have not bought any PPE, and I am respecting the social distancing guidelines. How else can we help the folks at the front lines of the pandemic?”

Wisconsinites in need of assistance may consult this list, compiled by WPR, of Wisconsin organizations offering services. You can also use 211 Wisconsin to connect with nonprofit and government services in your area. Call 211 or 877-947-2211.

Here are some ideas for doing good.

Feed the hungry

The Food Pantry of Waukesha County typically serves about 50 families per day, according to executive director Karen Tredwell. That number now ranges from 63 to 148 families daily during the pandemic. The fewest people visited on March 25, the first day of the state Department of Health Services’ Safer at Home order. Tredwell worries people did not realize pantries remained open.

“In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Health (Services) has asked food pantries and food banks to stay open,” Tredwell said. “We’re trying to get the word out.”

Leopold Elementary School student Shalom Harimana, 12, right, and his brother, Danny, 7, receive pre-packaged bags of breakfast and lunch meals March 23, 2020, from workers with the Madison School District. With schools closed, the district and other area nonprofits are providing free weekday meals for children.

The pantry accepts cash donations, and many grocery stores have bins to accept donated food.  Cereal and canned food — such as beef stew, pasta, fruits and vegetables —  are particularly useful. So are volunteers, especially people who are less likely to develop severe COVID-19 symptoms. Higher-risk populations include people older than 65, people with compromised immune systems and pregnant women.

Help the elderly and disabled

John Hicks takes a Meals on Wheels dinner out of a cooler on the porch of his Madison home after delivery by volunteer Rachel Desertspring, left. Meals on Wheels is still operating, but with special precautions. Before the outbreak, Desertspring would bring meals inside and chat in the kitchen. Volunteering to deliver meals for the program is among several steps that Wisconsin residents can take to help out during the coronavirus crisis.

Feeding people who are isolated has never been easy, particularly in rural areas. The pandemic only exacerbates that challenge, said Joel Gottsacker, department head of the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Oneida County.

Congress’s response to COVID-19 will allow more people to sign up for Meals on Wheels, the popular home delivery program for the elderly and disabled that the Oneida County center runs locally, Gottsacker said. The center is “always interested” in cash donations, he added, and donors may earmark funds for the meals program.

In Oneida County and elsewhere, Meals on Wheels relies on volunteers. Gottsacker said about 100 people volunteer in his county, with 25 to 30 delivering meals each day. The program will need additional volunteers — particularly younger ones — as eligibility expands.

“Most of our volunteers are older adults,” Gottsacker said. “So we’re anticipating that they’re going to start needing to socially isolate as well.”

The center is accepting names and contact information for people interested in volunteering.

House the homeless

Groups that serve people who lack stable housing could also use help. Patrick Vanderburgh, president of Milwaukee Rescue Mission, said the nonprofit’s shelters for men, women and families are serving 40% more people compared to last year.

“We’ve definitely seen an influx,” Vanderburgh said.

Cash donations are “always welcome,” Vanderburgh said, but the nonprofit is also looking for donations. The most needed items right now: face masks, thermometers and men’s underwear. The shelter could also use toilet paper, “like everyone else,” said Vanderburgh, chuckling.

Most shelters need similar items. For guidance, donors might consider what items their own family needs; shelters could probably use those things, too.

Support child care

Child care needs loom large since the schools are now shuttered across the state. Health care workers, first responders and others with jobs deemed essential face particular challenges. Many YMCAs around the state have pivoted to providing emergency child care. That includes the La Crosse Area YMCA, where Jennie Melde is director of culture and youth development.

While the center remains open for emergency child care, its overall enrollment has plummeted, and “We’re looking at huge numbers of layoffs and furloughs of our staff.”

Melde said financial donations would be the most useful. The center also is offering financial assistance to families in need who were not expecting to pay for child care.

“Anybody who’s looking to help support our essential workers could give to any YMCA or any child care center who’s trying to operate emergency child care right now,” Melde said.

The center could also use arts and crafts supplies.

“There’s only so many paper plate projects you can do and then you run out of paper plates,” Melde said.

Help health care workers

Many people asked WPR’s WHYsconsin how to support frontline health care workers. Teri Wilczek, chief philanthropy officer for Marshfield Clinic Health System, said hospitals around the country have similar needs during the pandemic. The biggest: personal protective equipment.

The health system has partnered with local businesses who have stockpiles of items like face shields, gloves, protective eyewear and N95 masks, Wilczek said.

“Literally every mask matters,” she said.

The Marshfield Clinic Health System’s foundation recently called for hand-sewn masks — to protect patients who enter clinics. The foundation has since received more than 3,000. But it needs “probably 10 times that many,” says chief philanthropy officer Teri Wilczek. Here, Jen Mulder, owner of the Electric Needle in Madison, Wis., prepares a batch of homemade cloth masks dropped off at her store.

The health system’s foundation recently called for hand-sewn masks — to protect patients who enter clinics. The foundation has since received more than 3,000. But it needs “probably 10 times that many,” said Wilczek. Other health systems have said they do not plan to use cloth masks, which offer less protection than those health care workers use.

Marshfield, like health systems across the state, is also seeking financial donations for meals, comfort items and other support to their health care workforce.

Support local businesses

Many leaders are asking residents to support local businesses. One Madison effort helps local businesses — and hungry neighbors.

The Artisan Grain Collaborative offers a way to feed people while supporting farmers, millers and bakers. The collaborative’s “Neighbor Loaves” initiative encourages shoppers to visit the websites of participating bakeries and buy a “neighbor loaf” of bread to be baked, sliced and donated to an organization focused on feeding communities.

Said Alyssa Hartman, executive director of the Artisan Grain Collaborative, “It’s a way that people who may have a little extra cash to spend can take a very simple concrete action from the convenience of their home, which is where we all should be right now.”

This story comes from a partnership of Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio. Bram Sable-Smith is WPR’s Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Fellow embedded in the newsroom of Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org), which collaborates with WPR, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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