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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

In Central Vermont, Nonprofits Unite To Address 'Emergency Of The Day'

A person reaches up to grab a crate full of food.
Peter Hirschfeld
Heidi Wilson, a volunteer from Plainfield, delivered meals from this food shelf in Barre last week to area hotels housing people without homes.

As the economic fallout of COVID-19 tests the strength of social safety nets, a coalition of nonprofits in central Vermont has found a new way to keep pace with demand for services.

It was cold and wet and gray at the Capstone Community Action food shelf in Barre last week, but it didn't deter Heidi Wilson, who loaded cartons full of pre-packaged meals into her maroon station wagon.

Wilson is a volunteer driver from Plainfield, and she delivered this food to nearby hotels full of people who used to reside in local homeless shelters.

Wilson said she'd been looking for ways to help out.

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“It just seems like making sure everyone is healthy and fed right now is pretty much as fundamental as it gets,” she said.

Wilson’s path to Capstone began with a call to a senior center in Plainfield, to see if they needed any volunteers. Organizers there suggested she inquire with Meals on Wheels, which in turn directed her to an organization called Community Harvest, which then connected her with Capstone.

Each of those groups is part of a new regional command center established in Washington and northern Orange counties. And getting volunteers to the places they’re needed most is just one benefit of the incident command framework they’re using to coordinate their COVID-19 response.

"It just seems like making sure everyone is healthy and fed right now is pretty much as fundamental as it gets." — Heidi Wilson, Plainfield volunteer

“We chose the incident command system because it is a framework that can be built up and out very quickly and ensure a strong communication and coordination,” said Joan Marie Misek, a district director for the Vermont Department of Health.

Misek added communication and coordination are especially important during this time of crisis, “when there are a lot of balls in the air and when the situation is rapidly evolving.”

In addition to the Department of Health, the command center includes more than 30 charitable organizations and nonprofits in central Vermont. And instead of managing their COVID-19 responses as standalone entities, many of them now communicate daily to address the “emergency of the day.”

Want to volunteer, donate or find assistance in Vermont around COVID-19? Here is a list of resources.

“It means that there’s really clear roles and responsibilities,” said Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action. “Everyday, a very clear objective that is begun in the morning and returned to at the end of the day.”

A couple weeks ago, that objective consisted of moving dozens of people out of local homeless shelters and into area hotels.

“If Capstone was working alone on trying to address a very multi-faceted problem, we would’ve taken a week to do what really we were able to do in 48 hours,” Minter said.

Able to do in 48 hours, Minter said, because the regional command center included experts like Eileen Peltier, head of an affordable housing organization called Downstreet Housing and Community Development.

"There's nothing like an emergency that sort of takes all the philosophical thinking away and gets you down to the reality." — Eileen Peltier, Downstreet Housing and Community Development

“It quickly became clear to us that many of our colleagues, nonprofits, were going to struggle to fill all the demands, so that’s where we sort came in with this idea of this command center: How can we help fill these gaps,” Peltier said.

As in any natural disaster, Peltier said, vulnerable people are most at risk from the effects of COVID-19. And she said that ups the stakes for organizations that serve low-income Vermonters.

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“There’s nothing like an emergency that sort of takes all the philosophical thinking away and gets you down to the reality,” she said.

The regional command center, called the Washington and Northern Orange Counties Regional Response Command Center, now includes a call center the group launched last week, and it can be reached by dialing (802) 636-2025. Trained volunteers will staff the phones 14 hours a day, seven days a week, and they’ll connect anyone needing support with resources available in central Vermont.

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