Nimble nonprofit ‘UP’ to the challenge amid crisis

[Photo: Kaila Jones]

Things had really been looking ‘UP’ for United Against Poverty of Indian River County, especially given the recent opening of its new 46,000-square-foot facility, where residents in need can access a number of critical services to meet its mission to “inspire and empower people to lift themselves and their families out of poverty and into economic self-sufficiency.”

Now, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they face the need to focus a significantly greater portion of their efforts toward crisis management, the model of the organization is being tested to the extreme.

Staff is working overtime to help fill that need, according to Annabel Robertson, executive director of United Against Poverty of Indian River County. UP also provides services in St. Lucie County and Orlando.

“United Against Poverty is remaining open,” says Robertson. “We are here fulfilling essential functions during this time of crisis.”

Despite having provided aid and services in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes such as Frances, Jeanne and Irma, they soon realized COVID-19 was presenting them with a whole new set of problems.

More than 800 people a day are generally served at the Indian River facility, which features an 18,000-square-foot member share grocery, education and job training, crisis stabilization services, small-business development, and medical and mental health services.

The grocery program is fully functioning and, to ensure the facility is CDC compliant, UP has instituted a rigorous cleaning schedule.

Individuals in need of assistance need only fill out an application and meet with a membership counselor. To qualify, applicants must fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level; for instance, a household income of $52,400 or less for a family of four.

As this pandemic crisis continues to rapidly change, UP has been working to create ways to fill needs as they arise.

“We’re currently developing a grocery pick-up program, where people won’t have to get out of their cars. They will shop by a list and we will bring it to them,” explains Robertson.

She adds that they hope to partner with other providers to implement home delivery to vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with co-morbidities.

They have also seen an increase in the need for public computer access.

“As people are social distancing, a lot of places are closing down and limiting public access. That’s becoming a crisis need for people,” notes Robertson.

They have moved computer stations at the facility 6 feet apart, with stations sterilized after every use.

The computer lab is a crucial component for participants in their Success Training for Employment Program (STEP) and graduate coaching, and functions as a way to communicate with UP employer partners.

The Treasure Coast Community Health clinic at the UP facility is open for anyone needing medical assistance. TCCH is conducting screenings on site but not COVID-19 testing.

Robertson stresses that anyone who is symptomatic or has been diagnosed with the virus should not visit the UP facility.

“Caring for each other by self-quarantining is one of the ways that we will be able to keep the center open as long as possible,” she says.

In addition to the added strain on staff, changes in cleaning protocols and programming have resulted in an increase in associated costs. Robertson says that despite the upsurge in the need for their services, they have noticed a decrease in donations.

“To meet the increasing need, we desperately need support to keep this essential function available for low-income families in the community; particularly at a time when the number of low-income families is increasing,” says Robertson.

She stresses that UP is a privately funded nonprofit and does not receive any state or federal funding.

“We have seen a direct impact on donations. We are struggling to meet the need,” says Robertson.

In response to COVID-19 restrictions, the nonprofit had to cancel its March 7 Ride Poverty out of Town fundraiser, but is holding out hope that the annual Burgers & Brews celebration will go as scheduled on June 27.

“We all have to come together and work to help each other through this. United Against Poverty’s goal is to keep the doors open,” says Robertson.

“We know that social distancing is critical, but not everybody has access to the tools necessary to get access to social support, benefits, food, the Internet or home delivery. Those resources are really luxuries, and therefore we feel it is our public duty to keep this resource available for low-income families as long as we possibly can, and we will continue to do that.”

If you’re in need or would like to donate, call UPIRC at 772-564-9365 or visit the COVID-19 tab at UPIRC.org.

Photos by: Kaila Jones
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