Colorado nonprofits, volunteers to work together during coronavirus

It was tough enough when the elderly woman in Colorado tested positive for COVID-19, the disease that comes from the novel coronavirus; it got downright difficult when her family wouldn’t let her into the house, forcing her to live in her car.

Within hours of learning of the woman’s plight, Charlotte Olson, the emergency manager for Colorado’s Department of Human Services, mobilized resources from a matrix of organizations that bind together in times of disaster.

“The local human services director reached out and we connected them to the Salvation Army and the local agency on the aging,” Olson recalled, saying she couldn’t identify the county or the woman because of privacy concerns. “She was placed into a hotel, given food, and will be helped until she’s out of isolation.”

The woman’s plight is just one of several anecdotes offered by dozens of volunteer organizations mobilized across the state since the pandemic onslaught, a seemingly never-ending stream of need, heartache and stress that Olson strives to stem.

Part of that is working with the Colorado Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters, a tightly knit group of nonprofits whose primary function to work together is outlined in the state’s emergency management plan.

“It’s so we’re not competing or duplicating resources,” said Ian Anderson, COVOAD’s executive director and a regional director of emergency disaster services for The Salvation Army. “Typically government will have nonprofits in a supportive or lead role in their emergency plan and that requires coordination.”

Gov. Jared Polis’s office said the group was activated early when it was clear there was a threat, but with a slight change.

The greatest challenge hasn’t been finding volunteers to help with food distribution or setting up temporary housing for the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis, Anderson said.

“It’s been the limitation on our volunteers, who generally are retired and of the most vulnerable population, because of the coronavirus,” he said. “It’s sad to tell a volunteer who’s been with us for years that we can’t use them because we want to keep them safe. They very much want to help.”

With more than 300 agencies and nonprofits statewide, many of which have never worked together in a disaster setting because a pandemic isn’t what’s most trained for, Olson said, maintaining order can be challenging.

“Every so often, some go off on a wild hair a little, but we regroup everyone and coordinate more effectively,” Olson said. “I’d say the biggest challenge is that everyone is vying for the same resources at the same time. Last year there were 13 fires in the state and that felt overwhelming. Now we have 64 counties that all need food, with 200% more people needing access to services.”

Although most of the need is around Denver’s populated metro area, the more serious need is in the state’s more rural counties.

“Rural Colorado is being affected disproportionately because they don’t have many grocery stores; they’re becoming food deserts,” Olson said. “We hear that people are driving to Kansas or to Utah to get supplies because their local was sold out.”

Some situations rely on an all-out blitz.

That was the case when social service agencies statewide reported an alarming lack of diapers, baby formula and wipes.

“It had never happened that big before,” Olson said. “Suddenly thousands of cases came in and have been distributed out to the various places.”

It happened again in a northwest Colorado county where seven painters who were in the country illegally came into a local hospital the day before Easter, anxious because five of them were sick. It was 2 a.m. Five ultimately positive for COVID-19 and were hospitalized. One would die.

The remaining two had no resources.

“What’s heartening is the whole community stepped up for housing and feeding and services for these undocumented guys who really needed some help,” Olson said.

The Salvation Army helped the two men settle into a nearby hotel room for the night, then another agency found them housing and food for two weeks.

“We still have people stranded in Colorado,” Olson said. “Families from Colombia and South America. Some were on vacation; some were employees at the resorts. They can’t get home. Every single day it’s a new challenge.”

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