Nonprofit organizations watching the curve as businesses reopen

Sue Guinn Legg • Apr 26, 2020 at 11:51 AM

As area businesses begin to reopen and the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) tracking numbers continue to climb, two of the region’s most critical nonprofit service agencies will be staying the course of special precautions put in place to protect their programs.

Stressing the need to proceed with caution, Rhonda Chafin, executive director of Second Harvest of Northeast Tennessee, said, “We have 140 partner agencies that get food from Second Harvest. All the schools are getting food boxes daily. And we are trying to provide them as much as we can.

“Those agencies depend on us. If we are not here, they have no place to go to get food like that because that is all there is.

“If we continue taking on volunteers, we believe it could be a threat to the operation of this agency. We are a source of food for this region and we have got to stay healthy because we are it. Without us here, the agencies could go without,” she said.

To avoid the risk, the regional food bank warehouse in Kingsport has been off limits to volunteers and agency representatives since March. Instead of coming to the food bank to make selections, food pantries across the eight-county area are placing orders and food bank staff members are boxing, loading and making deliveries to the agencies.

“We’re going to be evaluating for two weeks,” Chafin said. “If the numbers stay down, we will determine when we bring volunteers back. If we bring volunteers back, it will be with gloves and masks and social distancing.”

Good Samaritan Ministries, which has shifted its primary focus to food delivery during the COVID-19 crisis, will also be staying the course of program modifications put in place to protect its staff, volunteers and the community.

Aside from church groups that are packing sack lunches for Good Samaritan Ministries staff to pass out daily at The Melting Pot emergency dining room, the ministry that began with a 100 percent volunteer work force is being operated strictly by paid staff members. And it plans to continue in that fashion until the COVID-19 tracking numbers indicate it will be safe to do otherwise.

“Good Samaritan’s plan is to play it by ear and make sure we keep our staff, our volunteers and our community safe,” Executive Director Aaron Murphy said.

“We are not just going to jump into it. We are going to continue doing what we are doing. But we have to make some plans.”

Chafin said Second Harvest is projecting the need for food, which local agency numbers indicate has jumped approximately 50 percent since the COVID-19 shutdowns, will remain high for the next 12 to 18 months.

Looking forward optimistically, she said, “A lot of people have stockpiled food. And it could be that as this improves, they will see they do not need that stockpile.”

And with the food bank depleting its stores as fast as it comes in, she said, “Donating that stockpile would be a good way to help low-income people who were not able to stockpile.”