Faith, Community Sustains Staff, Clients at United Church Outreach Ministry

Volunteers pack and deliver groceries to waiting cars in UCOM’s parking lot.

For frontline nonprofits like United Church Outreach Ministry in Wyoming, Mich., colder weather and the holiday season always means finding new ways to meet the basic, ongoing needs of clients. But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throwing a spanner in the works, adaptability has been key.

“UCOM is nothing if not flexible,” says the Rev. Bruce Roller, executive director. During the original “stay at home” orders of the pandemic, UCOM had used its parking lot pickup for emergency and supplemental food for an additional 1,000 people who had never needed UCOM’s services before. In September, UCOM finally re-opened its indoor pantry — “by appointment, three people in the building at a time, masked, socially distanced, and washing hands on entry,” Roller says — only to revert back to parking lot pickup only as the second wave of COVID cases came crashing across the country.

“In spite of this, we are implementing our plan for winter holidays,” says Roller. “This includes a second visit for everyone in November and December where people can choose ‘special’ foods to celebrate holidays within their households. These are more expensive foods that we might not usually carry. People can get the appropriated-sized turkey for their family, tamale fixings, grocery-fresh and some farm-fresh Michigan-grown produce, and lots of other holiday foods.”

A volunteer makes sure every box has fresh fruit and vegetables, even if they haven’t been requested.

And, he adds, although people can’t walk down the aisles to pick their own favorite foods, they can still make choices in what foods UCOM packs for them by calling its Health Choice Pantry.

UCOM developed the “second special foods holiday pickup” as a way to help families who might otherwise use already-taxed resources to provide a special meal for themselves or their families. This includes any holiday a participant celebrates, and UCOM serves Christian, Muslim and Jewish families, among others. It also relies on partnerships with other local organizations to make sure everyone has what they need.

For example, Roller says, the Hispanic Center of West Michigan recently brought a skid of yellow split peas, as well as carrots, to UCOM. UCOM couldn’t use the peas, but delivered them to Noor’s, a local organization that serves a significant number of Muslim families, who was able to distribute them to families in need.

Not only does UCOM partner with other local nonprofits, it also sees relationship building as key to identifying, supporting and enhancing each client’s capacities for self-sufficiency. “The pandemic has made this relational approach to empowerment and service delivery much more challenging, but we believe it is still possible to connect with individuals by offering some of our services outside our normal ‘in person’ preferred engagements,” Roller says.

One key new development is the release of financial literacy instruction Zoom workshops — 60-minute, interactive sessions that are intended to introduce concepts of personal finance management and help participants identify their own financial management strengths and weaknesses. UCOM also is producing two 20-minute YouTube videos on basic budgeting and credit management. UCOM staff members continue to provide job coaching and employment/unemployment navigation by phone as well.

UCOM staff keep the mood light despite the additional stress of the pandemic.

In a moment of reflection, Roller heaps praise upon his eight staff members. UCOM “thinks of its staff as family,” he says. “During this COVID epidemic, we have encouraged staff to work at home whenever possible and stagger shifts so that people can have less physically demanding days.” The result? A staff that still — despite the additional stress brought on by the pandemic — remains upbeat and fills its days with camaraderie and laughter, he says.

Luckily, he adds, although UCOM serves two of the West Michigan area codes that have been hit hardest by COVID, the staff has escaped relatively unscathed. While most staff members have had exposures to COVID-19 requiring quarantine, all tests have been negative, and the exposures were traced to family members or people outside of UCOM.

“We follow enhanced cleaning protocols, diligently wear our masks, and practice social distancing,” Roller says.

Finding these safe ways of living out UCOM’s faith and community are key in its success, and in the well being of its staff, Roller says. To help that process, Roller says he opens all weekly staff meetings with a prayer or meditation.

Additionally, UCOM keeps a prayer list “which includes our neighbors and, sometimes, ourselves,” he says. “The stress level for staff is very high, but passion and faith maintain our morale.”

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