HANCOCK COUNTY — When the pandemic gripped the nation nearly a year ago, life instantly got harder for people everywhere.
But as stores, workplaces and even medical offices began to close, people’s hearts opened to help others.
In March 2020, mere days after the pandemic spread to Hancock County, the Hancock County Community Foundation launched the Heart for Hancock community relief fund. It was designed to respond to the immediate needs of Hancock County residents.
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After seeding the fund with $115,000, the foundation launched a marketing blitz encouraging those who could to financially support the fund, which would make grants to nonprofits throughout the county. More than $168,000 was donated as of Dec. 31.
The fund has granted over $160,000 to 32 local nonprofits so far, with well over $100,000 still available.
“In March of last year, I would have thought we would have been out of money in two months. We never anticipated that we would have funds going into 2021,” said Mary Gibble, the community foundation’s president and CEO, who has been amazed at the level to which the community has stepped up to support the fund.
The pandemic has produced the most critical level of need she’s ever seen in the community, said Gibble, a lifetime Hancock County resident.
Partnerships in the wake of the crisis focused on helping those most at risk. It’s those unprecedented circumstances that made day-to-day operations so tough for local nonprofits, most of whom canceled major fundraisers last year, losing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Among those was Hancock County Senior Services, whose Bingo & Barbecue fundraiser was called off. Fortunately, Heart for Hancock helped make up some of the difference. Senior Services and Hancock Area Rural Transit received $3,000 last spring to help with the cost of keeping employees and clients safe.
“We were able to do a deep disinfect of our facilities and vehicles and purchase protective supplies for our staff,” said executive director Suzanne Derengowski, who said the added help was essential to the organization’s operation, which includes the county’s public transportation service.
“We are grateful that the community foundation was able to pivot from their normal grant cycle and help us work to safely serve our clients… throughout all the cycles of these unprecedented circumstances,” she said.
Hancock Hope House received a $10,000 grant to use for its operations, which director Andrea Mallory said was a godsend after the nonprofit was forced to cancel its biggest fundraiser of the year — the Hops 4 Hope craft beer tasting event, which draws hundreds of people each year.
“Hops 4 Hope brings an income of $50,000, and we had to close our (profit-generating) thrift store down for a month also,” she recalled.
“Hope House is very grateful that the community foundation was able to pull together to help and serve those in need during the pandemic. Because of that generosity, we were able continue to serve the homeless this entire time,” she said.
As food and toilet paper quickly began to fly off the store shelves in March and many families struggled to make ends meet, the Heart for Hancock fund awarded a $5,000 grant to help the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen, which has kept operating even though it has shuttered its dining room.
“This grant helped so much with our operational expenses. Our budget is $11,000 monthly, so this took care of about half a month for us,” said the kitchen’s executive director, Jill Ebbert.
“We were, at that point, beginning to realize that we would have to cancel our fundraisers and be facing a shortfall of at least $62,000. Needless to say, I was a little anxious, just like everyone else, about what we were facing,” she said.
Ebbert praised the foresight that went into establishing the Hearts for Hancock fund, and for the foundation’s support of the soup kitchen in the pandemic’s aftermath in more ways than one.
“We have used their board room for our meetings so we would have room to social distance, and their employees have volunteered when we were short on people. They’ve held biweekly zoom meetings with all the food providers just to see how we are and what any of our needs might be that they could help with,” Ebbert said.
“They always have our back and are there to support whatever challenges we face. In a nutshell, they really put the ‘heart’ in Heart for Hancock over and over again,” she said.
Gibble said it was essential to work with community partners to make the Heart for Hancock campaign as impactful as possible.
In March, the foundation launched the Hancock County COVID-19 Recovery Team to navigate economic and community recovery for Hancock County, in partnership with the Hancock Economic Development Council.
Members of the team representing businesses, nonprofits, education and health partners were tasked with identifying ways to address the county’s top pandemic-related challenges. Sub-teams were formed to address the workforce and small business and nonprofit sustainability.
Also since last March, the community foundation has convened a bi-weekly conference call with financial assistance agencies — particularly those providing support for rent, utility, and medical expenses — to discuss challenges their clients are experiencing through the pandemic and to find ways to help.
One partnership that emerged from that collaboration was between the Salvation Army of Hancock County and Interlocal Community Action Program.
The Heart for Hancock fund gave $10,000 to the Salvation Army to help the nonprofit continue its partnership with ICAP to help with rent and utility assistance. The goal was to help individuals impacted by COVID-19, or at immediate risk of homelessness, to retain or secure housing through financial assistance.
“The obstacles people are facing through the pandemic, like job loss, illness and children e-learning, have been financially insurmountable, especially if they were already living paycheck to paycheck,” said Stephanie Gustin, community outreach specialist with ICAP.
ICAP developed an application for the grant funds and vetted clients to determine need and risk for homelessness, then provided recommendations for assistance. Due to the time-sensitive nature of rent and utility expense needs, funding had to be executed quickly, Gibble said.
The Salvation Army was able to make a payment within hours if a client was up against a tight eviction or utility shut-off deadline, Gibble said.
In the end, the grant helped 11 families retain or secure housing in Hancock County over the past year, including four men, 12 women, and 20 children.
“The fallout if these families had become homeless would have been catastrophic,” said Salvation Army board member Jill Null.
“These families have elderly and young children. One had a disabled child. All would have been impacted by homelessness without this assistance, not to mention the public health issue that would have resulted if they couldn’t remain housed. This grant has been amazing,” she said.
Gibble said the foundation will continue to work with community partners to maintain the Heart for Hancock fund for as long as necessary.
“We also pay close attention to the ever changing developments and opportunities presented by state and federal resources and balance that assistance with other means of support,” she said.
Katie Ottinger, the foundation’s community investment and grants officer, credits the local nonprofit leaders who seek out ways to best serve their clients, especially in times of crisis.
“We’re just really blessed to have the leaders that we have in this community, particularly nonprofit leaders. They always work tirelessly helping clients. It’s just great to see what they do. We’re very fortunate and proud of them,” she said.
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The Heart for Hancock fund was created by the Hancock County Community Foundation to support the community in times of crisis, in partnership with local nonprofit agencies.
Currently no application is necessary, and the foundation is proactively making grants as needed. In June, the foundation will launch a revolving Heart for Hancock application process to address operating needs.
To learn more or to support the Heart for Hancock fund, visit hancock.fcsuite.com/erp/donate/create?funit_id=2023.