When the Bellevue School District (BSD) announced Wednesday, March 11 that its schools would be closed for two weeks starting March 13 amid COVID-19 (coronavirus) concerns, local nonprofit and district partner LifeSpring knew it needed to respond quickly.
Knowing that many families rely on food services provided in school, LifeSpring representatives placed an order March 12 for $115,000 worth of food vouchers (ultimately affecting some 2,300 children) with one of its partners, Safeway. The vouchers then were distributed to the district on March 13.
Later on that same Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee mandated that schools statewide be closed for the next six weeks to help prevent the spread of the virus. Since the Safeway vouchers were not likely to be fully appropriated to families until the following Monday, LifeSpring executive director Jennifer Fischer wanted to know how else the organization could help in the meantime. She called Judy Buckmaster, the executive director of community development for the school district, and asked what the most immediate needs of students were.
“She said [on Friday, March 13], ‘We need breakfast for 750 students Monday morning,’” Fischer recalled, noting that students were due to arrive at various designated school and Boys and Girls Club sites for a meal that day.
Over the weekend, LifeSpring placed an order with Safeway to ensure Monday breakfast for students. Fischer said she lined up 15 volunteers within a half-hour.
LifeSpring personnel arrived at a Safeway at 6:30 a.m. that Monday morning and sorted the food for the nine different sites. By 7:30 a.m., 750 breakfasts were distributed ensuring “that no one in our community is hungry during this time of crisis,” Fischer said.
Because the first set of food vouchers were meant to be used for the initial two-week cancellation, Fischer has placed another order for 2,300 $35 vouchers that will be valid through mid-April.
This collaboration between LifeSpring, Safeway and the BSD is an emergency extension of their Breakfast-Mealtime program, in which vouchers help pay for meals students would otherwise receive if schools were open. They are available to families who aren’t able to access district food sites, according to a press release.
Within six days, Fischer said, the nonprofit invested about $196,800 on students affected by the coronavirus emergency. In addition to its voucher program, the nonprofit is working on an additional food-service resource that has not yet been finalized, and still has available an emergency-preparedness rent assistance program, which provided 90-plus families with eviction aid last year. (Fischer expects, amid the pandemic, that the number of families assisted by the latter program specifically will increase between 25 and 50 %.)
LifeSpring isn’t the only community organization working to assist Bellevue students and families in addition to what the BSD is offering.
The Boys and Girls Club is offering more programming for families.
Jubilee REACH has extended its Community Care program, which provides financial support to families struggling to pay their utility bills, rent and other needs. While the program has typically offered as much as $150 for assistance, Jubilee REACH now has upped the number to $300. The organization also has been providing grocery-store gift cards, food boxes and vouchers for its thrift store.
“The overwhelming number of individuals and organizations who have reached out and asked, ‘What is your greatest need at this time, and how can I help?’ — I think that is to be celebrated,” Buckmaster said.
Joe Fain of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce said the organization had been having ongoing conversations with the BSD throughout its coronavirus planning process before the closures became official.
“Chamber leaders and the business community have been impressed by the district’s quick action, strong communications and continued efforts to build partnerships,” Fain said in an email.
He noted that the organization has developed a portal on its website where community members can share their needs and then subsequently have the chamber connect an individual to a partner who would be best able to meet them.
“We’re in this together,” Fain said in an email.
Buckmaster noted, however, that those who indicate online a need versus those who actually show up for an offered resource is a difficulty, and may continue to be a factor as the district keeps planning. (Before the closures, the district put out a family survey asking about food, technology and childcare needs to prepare for the upcoming week, Buckmaster said; there are also 10 family engagement specialists reaching out to families who are unable to use online services directly.)
Fischer said that with restrictions on social distancing in mind, she is encouraging community members interested in getting involved with assistance efforts to donate to LifeSpring, knowing that “every single dollar that they’re contributing goes to families with no administrative costs.”
“We’re prepared to respond,” she added. “But what we really need is funding so that we can ensure that during this time there aren’t any families that are faced with experiencing homelessness due to the coronavirus.”
Fischer hopes that community members can feel like they can turn to LifeSpring and know that their investments will positively impact children in the area.
“I am so grateful to live in a community that is so caring and giving, and that when we have an immediate need, our community comes together and responds to those who need our help,” Fischer said.
For more information on BSD student and family resources, go to the district’s website, https://bsd405.org.