Checking on the Gresham community: neighbor to neighbor
Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis made an important phone call last week in the midst of COVID-19 crisis and social isolation — he called his mother.
The pair talked as families often do, bouncing around to different topics and reminiscing. Bemis asked what books she was reading — the same ones, since she had already voraciously read everything she had — and how the latest crossword puzzle was going.
"Social isolation can be tough," Bemis said. "Please make sure your friends and family know you love them, and you are thinking of them."
Gresham city staff is following the mayor's lead, not only checking on their loved ones but also the people they serve. In a new program called Operation Gresham Connected, city staff have been making phone calls to check in on longtime utility account holders as well as senior citizens and vulnerable community members referred to City Hall by local faith and nonprofit organizations.
"We are doing this to check in with our residents to make sure they have the best and most current information available, and help in any way we can," Bemis said. "During these difficult times I want to encourage all of you to make calls to your loved ones as well."
When Gresham leadership first put forward the idea, there was a rush of volunteers to make the calls. The program, which launched Tuesday, March 24, had about 40 Gresham staff calling more than 4,000 residents. Many were reassigned from normal duties that had been rendered moot by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The program is not only a way to break through isolation, but also to share potential resources.
"If our elderly, or immune compromised need help finding services or a courier to get a critical pickup, we will do our best to meet that need," Bemis said.
One resident told the city caller that her husband had passed away a little more than a year ago, and her kids live in Southern California, so it was now just her and the cat together in her Gresham home. Thankfully she said her neighbors have been caring and check in on her often. They also have been helping her with errands and supplies, allowing her to continue to self-quarantine and stay safe from COVID-19.
"She really appreciated the call and what the city is doing to help residents and check on them — and how great it made her feel to be part of such a caring community" said Elizabeth Coffey, Gresham communications manager.
Those sentiments have been shared by many others across Gresham, as staff said the response to their check-ins have been overwhelmingly positive.
A local club for folks in recovery, which has been operating independently in Gresham since 1963, was in danger of closing its doors for good because of COVID-19.
Unity, Recovery, Service (URS) has operating expenses of about $5,000 a month. And because it had to close its doors to members, to comply with social distancing guidelines, the typical revenue streams from meeting room fees and the popular Snack Shack had dried up.
So the city of Gresham stepped in to see how it could help. Staff with the newly formed Small Business Technical Assistance Team, an ad-hoc group of city employees that work similarly to Operation Gresham Connected but for the economic backbone of the community, began tracking several options. URS Club could take advantage of a SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides low-interest loans to cover six months of a business's average operating expenses.
"They have been very grateful for the assistance in keeping their operation from going under," said Joe Walsh, a senior manager with the city who has been helming the Small Business Team.
City of Gresham staff on the team work as caseworkers for small businesses and nonprofit organizations. They listen to specific needs, research and recommend programs, and help with preparing forms and application materials. It is another layer of support for businesses as state orders shutter their doors.
By the end of last week, the team had been working with 10 small businesses. Some were restaurants seeking information about Gresham's grant program.
"While we are doing everything in our power to marshal every local resource available to aid our residents and businesses, we recognize that the scope of need is even greater," Bemis said. "We will continue to advocate for state and federal assistance to our residents, businesses, and local governments to navigate our current challenge to the best possible outcome"
At SnowCap Community Charities, the nonprofit organization has made the shift from being a food pantry to a food box factory.
"SnowCap was built for this," said Kirsten Wageman, executive director, explaining how the new guidelines on social distancing made the change necessary.
A big help in accomplishing that change has come from the city of Gresham, which has been able to waive a lot of red tape that would otherwise slow the critical services provided by SnowCap.
Operation Gresham Connected shares names of residents in need of food stability with SnowCap. The volunteers, who have done extraordinary work for the organization during this difficult time, then put necessary items into a food box. City staff pick up and deliver the food box to the resident in need. The partnership is providing key support to the most vulnerable across the community, with about 175 boxes being distributed daily. SnowCap also has seen an increase of about 60% more new visitors and families utilizing its services compared to this same time last year.
It has been the dedication of the volunteers that have made this difficult time easier for SnowCap. Volunteers transformed the front of the food pantry, at 17805 SE Stark St., into a safe place to deliver the food boxes, with protected pickup windows and plenty of disinfectant.
"We cannot thank the community enough for being so flexible and stepping up," Wageman said. "We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of goodwill."
One couple had been had been volunteering at the food pantry for years It was hard for them to stop helping despite the health risks that made it safer for them to stay home. But with prompting from their children, they relented.
"Their son knew how important coming into SnowCap was for his parents, so he started volunteering to take on all their responsibilities," Wageman said.
COVID-19 has hurt SnowCap, and they continue to be in need of any financial support community members are able to give. Learn more about how to help at www.snowcap.org.
Another important need for SnowCap was extra storage for all the food boxes. They asked and the city delivered. Bemis was able to secure two shipping containers, generously donated by the Port of Portland. Those shipping containers were key in expanding the space available to allow for proper social distancing among the volunteers, as well as a way to store more than 10 days of food boxes safely.
Bemis was able to find a solution with a phone call.
"We are all in this together," the mayor said.
Even though small government is exempt from Gov. Kate Brown's stay-at-home orders, the city of Gresham has taken precautions to protect its staff and flatten the novel coronavirus curve.
Many employees are working remotely, if possible. Other departments like the Operations crews have been split into several locations. These satellite offices allow them to continue providing critical services while ensuring social distancing. That means road safety work, sewer, wastewater and other key services will continue to hum along.
The Gresham Police Department and Gresham Fire & Emergency Services have also implemented new systems to protect officers and firefighters. Emergency response vehicles have been equipped with masks and sanitizer.
Gresham's Emergency Operations Center remains activated, while City Hall is closed to the public. City leadership continues to conduct core business.
To recommend a community member for the Operation Gresham Connect phone calls, participate in the Small Business Technical Assistance Team, or to learn more about the city's response to COVID-19, visit GreshamOregon.gov/covid19
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