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Nonprofits struggle to serve clients during pandemic shutdown

Tom Durkin
Staff Writer

Life as Nevada County knew it changed March 19 when Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all nonessential operations in the state to shut down.

Nonprofit organizations serving some of Nevada County’s most vulnerable citizens are doing their best to continue to help their clients.

“We’re essential,” said peer counselor Mindy Stidham of the Spirit Peer Empowerment Center in Grass Valley.

“We’ve been open and running the whole time,” said Pauline Abrons, executive director of Spirit.

Located in a secluded, old house overlooking the Glenbrook Basin, Spirit serves some of Nevada County’s most needy citizens, predominantly low income, mentally disordered and homeless people.

For some clients, Spirit is just a safe place to be.

Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Spirit offers one-on-one and group peer counseling, social events, showers, laundry, technology assistance and a kitchen to cook nutritious food, Abrons said.

Of course, it’s not business as usual at Spirit. Strict hygiene protocols have been instituted, Stidham reported.

Before entering the building, clients must wash their hands at a washing station. Also, they must have their temperature checked and answer some COVID-19 screening questions, she explained.

All clients, staff and volunteers must wear masks and maintain social distance inside the facility, Abrons said. Only 10 clients at a time are allowed inside, she added.

Everything is in short supply at Spirit. Abrons said they need masks and nonperishable food as well as travel-sized soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, shampoo, deodorant, razors and other personal hygiene items.

In addition to serving clients at Spirit, highly trained peer counselors also help staff at the Crisis Stabilization Unit at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. The unit exists to assist patients experiencing mental health issues.


“We have just recently seen an incredible increase in requests for services from those who have been living with violence during the stay-at-home order,” said Stephanie Fischer, executive director of Community Beyond Violence in Grass Valley. “This is an extremely vulnerable time for survivors of violence.

“COVID-19 is stretching our resources and presenting challenges to our ability to conduct victim outreach and care,” Fischer revealed. “We have completely overhauled our outreach communication strategies.”

Formerly known as the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition, CBV serves the needs of women, children and men who are victims of domestic or sexual violence or human trafficking.

Besides running a safe shelter for women and children, CBV also offers crisis counseling, individual counseling, support groups, assistance with temporary restraining orders, and advocacy for victims in court and the emergency room.

With two major fundraisers canceled because of the pandemic, “We’ve lost a lot of money,” Fischer said.

Layoffs of full- and part-time staff are imminent if the shutdown goes on much longer, Fischer predicted. “We’re not looking forward to that.”


“We’ve been really busy,” said Ana Action, executive director of the FREED Center for Independent Living in Grass Valley. She said the center is receiving double the number of calls it usually gets this time of year.

Founded in 1985 as The Foundation of Resources for Equality and Employment for the Disabled, FREED is dedicated to assisting people with disabilities and senior citizens who need support to stay at home.

“We quickly pivoted to working remotely,” Acton said, because like their clients, most of the staff and volunteers are disabled and/or at-risk themselves.

Right now, about 80 FREED clients are receiving “reassurance calls” once a week. Most incoming calls are for food or financial insecurity. “We’re trying to keep people from becoming homeless,” Acton said.

Additionally, in partnership local food banks, FREED is delivering food and assistance to about 60 to 70 people each week, she said.

“There always seems to be more need than capacity,” she observed.

FREED is in need of able-bodied volunteers who can deliver food and heavy backup batteries for clients who depend on critical medical equipment during power outages.

Many FREED clients are stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. Acton stated she is expecting 100 laptops or tablets from the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.

Those internet-capable devices will be loaned to clients for long-term use, but they’ll only be useful if patient, tech-savvy volunteers step up to train clients how to use the equipment, she said.


One Source-Empowering Caregivers in Grass Valley faces an especially tough challenge in that all of its clients are at-risk, and so are most of its volunteers.

“The physical help that caregivers receive has been suspended or stopped, making the burden of care more fatiguing, exhausting, fearful, and demanding with no option for respite in the home,” OSEC executive director Carolyn Seyler said in an email.

“Our ability to serve clients has been creatively redirected to other communication modalities, which include telephone visits, email contacts, virtual visits, and handwritten card-sending,” Seyler wrote,

In normal times, OSEC gives 24/7 caregivers respite from their stressful, round-the-clock duties. Specially trained “volunteer care specialists” make in-home visits once a week to relieve stressed, at-risk caregivers. They give caregivers some “care free” respite while the OSEC volunteer watches over the care recipient.

Care recipients, by definition, are at risk because of age, critical illness and/or some form of dementia. OSEC volunteers tend to be older and thus are at risk themselves.

Seyler added she hopes the shared experience of shelter in place makes the general population more sympathetic to the “real and actual needs” of caregivers who experience “isolation, dependency and loneliness” on a daily basis.


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Tom Durkin is a staff writer with The Union.

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