‘It breaks my heart’: In the midst of coronavirus shut down, nonprofits struggle to stay afloat

Doors and windows of Long Beach’s Goodwill thrift stores are boarded up indefinitely—shuttering the charity’s predominant funding source for however long it takes to stop the spread of coronavirus—and leaving the organization one among many nonprofits facing an uncertain future.

“We were proactive about this, and all of our facilities are boarded up,” said Janet McCarthy, president and CEO of Goodwill, Serving the People of Southern Los Angeles County (SOLAC), noting that the organization has concerns about potential vandalism at the properties.

“As much as we’d love the donations, there’s no one there to accept or process them,” she said, asking people to hold onto their donations for now, or schedule a truck pick-up; the one thing she hopes people don’t do is dump items in the parking lots of the six stores in Long Beach.

She said Goodwill SOLAC is trying to maintain as many of its nearly 400 employees as possible, moving some of its job training and sign language interpretation programs into a digital format. There’s also an online store for thrift items.

Doors and windows of Long Beach’s Goodwill thrift stores are boarded up indefinitely—shuttering the charity’s predominant funding source for however long it takes to stop the spread of coronavirus. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

“It breaks my heart,” she said, faltering. “We work hard every day to get people out of poverty and into jobs. We have some folks who have really worked hard to improve their lives and they may be potentially back into poverty again and that kills me.”

She and other local nonprofit leaders emphasized that they’re doing all they can today to ensure that their services meet immediate increasing demands and remain intact long-term.

“These are unchartered waters,” Long Beach Rescue Mission Chaplain and Executive Director Robert Probst said about the organization that serves lunch and dinner to the needy and houses about 200 people experiencing homelessness.

With 200 people living together, the Rescue Mission is enforcing strict rules and hygiene practices to ensure the virus doesn’t spread among those who’ve sought shelter there. No one new is allowed in, and volunteers have been asked to stay home as the residents themselves have volunteered to do all the cooking for the community—switching from buffets to grab-in-go items.

The organization is seeking donations of gloves, masks and hand soap, which have been on short supply.

“It’s a bit difficult keeping social distancing in an area where everyone lives together,” Probst said. “We couldn’t risk volunteers coming in, and we needed to continue to get meals to the community; our residents, thank God, are stepping up and helping with the feeding.”

And the need for those meals is only increasing. Last Saturday, 847 meals were served, when typically that number would be closer to 600, Probst said.

“Everyone is out there stocking their shelves, but there are a lot of people who don’t have the resources to stock their shelves,” he said, noting too that some local churches that provide meals have shut down. “We have to keep serving meals. We have so many people who count on us.”

The Guidance Center, which provides mental health services for disadvantaged children, is working quickly to transition to digital or phone therapy sessions for the 2,000 cases it currently manages.

CEO Patricia Costales said the process has been incredibly difficult and less effective than in-person therapy but it’s necessary to do what they can for as many as they can while protecting both the children and therapists from potential exposure to the virus.

“The community needs us more than ever,” Costales noted. “We know this (coronavirus) is anxiety provoking. Social isolating isn’t good for anybody’s mental health. And if you have a child or family already struggling, they are now isolated at home, which may or may not be a safe or nurturing place.”

Nonprofits such as The Guidance Center, which provide essential services, may qualify for grants through the Long Beach Community Foundation, which has set up a Disaster Relief Fund now active and accepting applications online.

LBCF President and CEO Marcelle Epley said many nonprofits are concerned about their ability to fundraise now and immediately following the crisis, with the economy in turmoil and many a spring gala being called off.

“There are a lot of giving, charitable people in the city who want to help,” she said, encouraging people to donate to the fund so that money goes to the most vital nonprofits in need. Already since the fund was announced last week, roughly $400,000 has been collected for distribution to area nonprofits.

“Those nonprofits that are providing aid right now and being asked to do more really need this infusion so they can continue the work they’re doing for the most vulnerable,” Epley said. “We’re trying to raise as much as possible to fill the gap in funding not available from the government. There’s no number you could put out there that would fill the need that is going to come.”

Epley said the priority for the fund is on nonprofits that provide essential services, but she said other types of nonprofits, such as arts institutions, also are going to struggle.

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, which is offering some digital educational programming this month for children to enjoy from home, President and CEO Jerry Schubel said a priority is being able to welcome visitors back when it’s safe to do so.

“When this is over, there will be a pent up demand for friends and family to get together, and aquariums and zoos and museums will be a part of that,” he said.

But that’s easier said than done, with 75% of the aquarium’s operating revenue dependent on admission tickets, gift shop purchases and on-site restaurant orders. If the aquarium remains closed, Schubel estimated losses per month of about $2.5 million during the spring, and about double that amount for the summer months. The aquarium’s annual budget is roughly $40 million.

“We are guaranteeing all employees’ normal wages through April 10, and we are looking at how long we can sustain this and provide as much protection—both health and financial—to our staff, but also to our aquarium so that, when this is over, we can reopen and be a vibrant institution.”

And although nonprofits such as the aquarium always welcome donations, many arts and cultural organizations are choosing not to ask right now.

“I think it would be inappropriate for us to try to raise funds at this time,” Schubel said about the aquarium. “So we have to be creative and make sure that when we reopen there are compelling reasons to come. We will have a blockbuster reopening.”

Long Beach Symphony President Kelly Lucera, too, said she believes said it’s important that music be there for people when the virus is stopped. She said the symphony, celebrating its 85th anniversary, is prioritizing the health and safety of musicians and patrons by postponing concerts, many of which were scheduled two or three years out. Some performances may have to be canceled completely, depending on how long the crisis lasts.

“These musicians are in a field where all of their performances are being shut down, and that’s heartbreaking, and there are so many unknowns,” she said. “This could be devastating to a lot of arts organizations, and people are going to need music to provide comfort and solace when this is over.”

The symphony’s Crescendo 2020 annual fundraiser, which was scheduled this weekend, also had to be postponed. Typically, about $300,000 is raised at that event, representing about 10% of the symphony’s annual budget.

No matter the challenges coronavirus has brought to local nonprofits, Lucera said she’s remaining positive about the symphony’s future and has found a new appreciation for the simple things, from toilet paper to music.

“We will move forward in these challenging times so that generations to come can enjoy the symphony,” she said. “Safety is the priority, and this is a test of how we can support one another and do the right thing. It’s a great opportunity to rise up as a community and value one another.”

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