As the Pandemic Turned Life in L.A. Upside Down, Local Nonprofits Had to Pivot on the Fly

Three local charities explain how they adjusted their missions to help vulnerable communities weather COVID-19—and why it will be key to California’s recovery

In early 2020, Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA) could expect between 500 and 600 students from in and around Westlake to come through its campus on most weekdays to take part in a robust schedule of academic, athletic, and arts programming. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, though, the nonprofit’s pivot was more than a shift to online learning.

“Our staff started making these wellness calls to check in one-on-one,” recalls Tony Brown, CEO and executive director of HOLA. When staff learned that some students were without heat during a cold snap, they bought space heaters. Working with Pass It Along Fund, they put together a pantry of essential items and organized delivery service. They distributed grocery gift cards and food, helped families get set up with tech and internet services. In a way, the pandemic changed what HOLA does. Yes, they still offer classes and activities, but, a growing part of the mission now is, as Brown says, to “help families stay stabilized.”

For groups like HOLA, South Los Angeles-based Brotherhood Crusade, and SHIELDS for Families, which serves South L.A., Compton, and Watts, the pandemic became an impetus to think fast about how to best serve communities. As COVID-19 cases surged, their work would continue to change in neighborhoods that were amongst the hardest hit in the county.

Brown, as well as Charisse Bremond Weaver and George Weaver of Brotherhood Crusade and Dr. Kathryn Icenhower of SHIELDS for Families, are all past recipients of James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards. At the Irvine Foundation, whose mission is to uplift low-income workers across California, San Francisco-based program officer Cindy Downing says that the work of groups like these during the pandemic may help others understand “how to develop and build and support a safe and equitable recovery for California.” She adds, “I’m really looking forward to seeing how their work and their ideas will translate in how we will see the recovery roll out across the state.”

An immediate concern, particularly for groups serving school-aged youth, was closing what’s known as the “digital divide,” a lack of technology and good internet access that impeded remote learning efforts when schools closed. “We shifted immediately to moving everything to a virtual platform within a week and then went on a fundraising campaign to support our families,” says Charisse Bremond Weaver, President and CEO of Brotherhood Crusade, the organization founded by her father, Walter Bremond Jr., back in 1968. With more than 3000 youth served by the program, Brotherhood Crusade also took into consideration issues like food and housing insecurity that could come as a result of job losses. To date, they’ve provided over $900,000 in funds and goods to community members in need.

George Weaver, childhood development specialist for Brotherhood Crusade and Charisse’s husband, points out that the pandemic “exacerbated” issues that that Charisse was already addressing in their work, like social justice and racial equity. “Now, she knew that we had to step this up,” he says.

Similarly, SHIELDS for Families looked toward solutions for problems that existed long before COVID-19. “I think what the pandemic did was it showed just how fragile just about every household was and the people who are in need of service,” says Saun Hough, vocational services director for SHIELDS.

“Probably our biggest difficulty in transition was our residential substance abuse treatment program because we couldn’t close. We had to stay open,” says Icenhower, CEO of SHIELDS of Families. This was crucial at a time when demand for substance abuse and mental health services increased.

“I would say increase was an understatement for us,” says Danielle Lowe, Behavioral Health Services Director for SHIELDS, estimating that they were receiving between 150 and 250 mental health referrals monthly. Telehealth allowed them to reach more people. However, social distancing and quarantine protocol did reduce their capacity for residential services.

Then there was the disease itself. “The South L.A. community was hit very hard,” says Icenhower. With new policies in place, SHIELDS was notified every time a staff member or client was exposed to the virus. “At one point, we were getting ten to twelve notifications a day,” she says. “It was that bad.”

Lowe points out that one SHIELDS participant did die from COVID-19 and families that they serve were impacted by the hospitalization and death of loved ones, as well as job loss. “The shift in our focus on mental health started to change with the pandemic, as far as stabilization, crisis response, and really being available for that recent loss and adjustment period,” she says.

By midsummer, Westlake had the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the city. For HOLA, that meant helping families with funeral costs and holding grief sessions. “I had attended some of the COVID grief sessions and there were dozens and dozens of folks who were affected by through the loss of a loved too,” says Brown.

“As the pandemic wore on, it affected the mental well-being of everyone,” he adds. “We’re a community, so where one of us suffered, many of us suffer, and as so many of us suffered, ultimately, we all suffer.”

There have been some changes at HOLA as a result. In the midst of the pandemic, they launched a Family Services department, which Brown foresees as remaining a part of HOLA. When they finally were able to open their new arts and recreation center, the group partnered with Kedren Health to host two vaccine drives. Events like this might be part of their future too.

Then there’s the issue of support for nonprofits, which is still needed even as California reopens. Icenhower points out that SHIELDS is continuing to run the donation center the group launched in response to the pandemic. “For so many, many people, this is not over,” she says. “They lost their livelihoods and they don’t have them back. They don’t have the income. They don’t have the revenue coming in and they still need that support.”

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