By Terry McDonald
The coronavirus pandemic has upended business as usual, and we have been learning during the past two months the lessons that adversity has to teach. At St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, an anchor institution that has been serving the most vulnerable for more than 60 years, we have been challenged to continue meeting needs, while keeping both our staff and those we serve safe.
When St. Vinnie’s shuttered its thrift stores in Oregon and laid off more than 200 staff in mid March, it was a crippling blow. Closing the stores that provide close to half of the agency’s revenue, money used to help so many of our programs, was tough enough. Laying off staff who are as much family as colleagues, and realizing the devastating impact on their lives, is harder still. We were uncertain how we’d weather the storm even as we anticipated greater need for our services.
A month later, we have learned so much. The idea that we are better together is more than just a quaint saying. We are better together. Lane County officials reached out to us and asked us to staff and manage respite centers for homeless community members we were not currently serving. We invited our laid-off employees to train to staff the new respite centers, and many of them were willing to learn a new set of skills.
Today, more than 100 of our store staff are now cross-trained. That makes not only for a more robust organization, but it also gives our staff additional skills that benefit them individually. Collaborating with restaurants to provide meals and with our fellow nonprofit agency Occupy Medical at the respite centers has been a privilege, and we’ve been so grateful at how many community members stepped up when we put out the call for new underwear and socks for homeless community members. (Note: we can still use more!)
We also learned how much help was available to us from our state and federal agencies. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration helped us develop new layouts and protocols for our stores so that, as we slowly begin to open again, we can provide a safe environment for staff and shoppers. Meanwhile the Oregon Health Authority gave us guidance on how to safely quarantine donations so we can continue to receive materials from generous donors that still have value and that allow us to be a significant part of the reuse economy.
While we have been selling books and some limited amounts of clothing and jewelry online for several years, we discovered that even more of our shoppers were finding us online and could have a positive experience hunting for treasures without having to leave their homes.
And we learned how amazingly generous our community is. As we struggled with the basics of meeting payroll, our donors came to the rescue. In a time of great financial uncertainty, we have been humbled by the generosity of so many. We are still developing strategies to bridge us into a future whose shape continues to unfold as the nation and the world gain experience with the virus.
We are all learning what this “new normal” looks like. We believe that working together, with other great nonprofits, government partners, civic leaders and our community members we can continue to serve and strengthen Lane County. We look forward to meeting the challenges that present themselves in coming months knowing that together we really are better.
Terry McDonald has been the executive director of St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, Inc. (SVdP) for 35 years. He has led SVDP to become the largest social services agency in the region.