At the start of the pandemic, it didn’t take long for local forces to mobilize additional social services.
In March 2020, a Community Emergency Response fund was established with a focus to gather the resources needed to address the impact of COVID-19 and the subsequent economic crisis on our most vulnerable neighbors. So far, more than $1.7 million has been raised to support essential services for the Orcas Island community.
The Orcas Island Community Foundation invited a team of leaders — Berto Gandera, Brian Moss, Lisa Byers, Erin O’Dell, Judy Scott, Susan Singleton and Hilary Canty — to serve as the CER fund advisors. This committee, with Kevin Ranker as the development officer, reviews requests and votes on distributions.
“Our initial goal was to raise the resources needed to support the remarkable and immediate increase in need that our social safety net providers experienced at the start and continue to experience now,” said Canty, OICF executive director. “We were able to tell them to focus on their services and assure them that the additional resources would be available. We had hoped that when the CARES funding reached San Juan County, funds would be available to subsidize these essential services. Unfortunately, that did not fully happen and these services continue to rely on philanthropy for a great majority of their operating expenses.”
Another goal was to keep the grant funds circulating locally.
“When we wanted to build portable shower units for the homeless shelter clients, the parts were purchased from Island Hardware,” Canty said. “Another example is the conservation corps project, which is providing 10 students training and a stipend with a promise of ongoing employment upon completion.”
In August, the San Juan Conservation District, Western Washington University and the Northwest Indian College announced the creation of the Orcas Island Civilian Conservation Corps to address economic and ecological challenges on the island. A total of $285,000 from the CER fund was given to spearhead the initiative. The nearly 11-month certificate program with a crew of 10 paid team members not only trains participants in modern forest management and wildfire risk reduction but also integrated native land management, forestry and fire reduction.
“What began as a conversation, is now a powerful reality,” said Ranker. “We’re addressing climate change, advancing the critical conversation regarding racial equity and putting people back to work now in the new green economy. Orcas Island is incredible.”
CER also funded the following: Early Childhood Education Initiative: $50,000 to mitigate the impacts of COVID at the three preschools; Hearts and Hands at the Orcas Senior Center: $10,000 for the Buddy Check-in program; OPAL: $301,000 for rental and mortgage assistance (85% of those helped are not OPAL residents); Orcas Center: $12,360 for video production of mask-wearing and PPE; Orcas Community Resource Center: $316,850 for clinical social workers, increased support for essential services and shelter program; Orcas Island Farmers Market: $778 for handwashing station and supervisor; Orcas Island Food Bank: $81,200 for increased staffing and support of local food purchases; Orcas Island School District: $125,000 for outdoor education days at Camp Orkila and increased digital access for students; Orcas Senior Center: $96,000 for food delivery program and check-in programs; San Juan Agricultural Guild: $117,000 for grants to local farmers; Washington State University Foundation: $5,000 for 4H garden and chick project; YMCA Camp Orkila: $10,000 for their supported education program.
OICF hosts a community check-in call every other week to learn what needs are and to help the nonprofits coordinate their efforts.
“We have so far received $193,000 in matching funds from the All In WA program through the Seattle Foundation. We will be submitting an additional $650,000 request which we anticipate will be fully matched as well. This will be used to help continue the support through the new year,” Canty said.
OICF has facilitated these efforts without fees. One hundred percent of the dollars donated go to help this community.
“I am deeply grateful for the board members, staff, volunteers and donors of all of our nonprofits who have stepped up and made this response possible. It has truly been an exceptional response that has been life-changing for so many,” Canty said.
Local numbers at a glance
To date, OICF has granted $280,000 and Federal and County funds have provided an additional $95,654 to OPAL Community Land Trust.
From March 23 to Dec. 31, the total requests for rental and mortgage assistance was 211 unique households comprised of 587 people who have asked for $335,091. Eighty-eight percent of households served do not rent or own through OPAL. The non-profit has made 297 months of payments to landlords and banks with total payments of $287,357.
Since March, the beginning of the pandemic, the Orcas Senior Center has totaled the following: Buddy Check-In volunteer hours — 730; Buddy Check-In phone calls — 3,929; Home-delivered meals — 8,235 (same time period in 2019 was 2,432) and it surpassed the senior center’s projected number of home-delivered meals, which was 7,779; miles driven for home-delivered meals — 4,378.
The Orcas Island Food Bank had an increase of 2,201 more recorded visits in 2020 than in the previous year. Its annual percentage growth rate for new customers was 48 percent and bags of food distributed increased by 174 percent.
Based on the 4-pound average of food per person per day, the food bank served 92,985 meals in 2020 made from pantry staples and whole fruits and vegetables. In addition to those meals, it served 1,606 homemade bowls of soup and 600-holiday to-go meals made by volunteers and using locally farmed foods.
“While this has been one of the most physically and emotionally challenging times in my life, it has also been the most socially creative and connected with our diverse community,” said Food Bank Manager Amanda Sparks. “In my experience, this community is passionate about working together and making magical things happen when given the right opportunity. We looked for inspiring ways to engage community members who were able, driven, or called to support food security through our efforts, and the response leaves me speechless. My team and I tear up when we start to talk about it.”
Sparks says the food culture on Orcas Island is unique.
“We are finding equitable ways to meet customers’ food needs according to how they choose to eat. We have acknowledged that parts of our food system are racist and are working on changing that,” she said. “We are aware that ‘food’ can also look like food-for-the-soul, and we stay actively looking for, and creating ways, to keep people inspired and connected to each other and our precious local food system.”