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COVID causes Community Council adjustments

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

When COVID-19 first hit Massachusetts and caused widespread lockdowns in March 2020, the Needham Community Council (NCC) both took on a greater importance in town and was forced to adjust its processes to accommodate social distancing rules. Nearly two years later, because of COVID-19, the NCC has streamlined its ways of doing things, made better use of technology, and believes it’s greatly improved its ability to help the people of Needham. But even as COVID wanes and employment numbers return to normal, the need for the NCC and its programs remain as strong as ever.

One of the most surprising things Executive Director Sandra Robinson and Director of Development & PR Page Van Amson have found about the NCC is that many of the community’s needs haven’t dropped as COVID numbers went down. In the middle of COVID, the NCC’s food pantry exploded in popularity. But while that may not be surprising given the economic downturn and layoffs that accompanied the virus and lockdowns, what is interesting is that the need hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. When pressed on what she thinks is going on, Van Amson explained she thinks it may just be that people were in need of help well before COVID, and that COVID either incentivized them to ask for help, or made them aware there were places nearby for them to go for help.

“That’s what the really shocking thing has been. The numbers went up with COVID, and they really haven’t gone down,” Van Amson noted when asked about a previous Hometown Weekly article that noted the number of NCC Food Pantry users went from around 200 to 270 in the midst of the COVID lockdowns.

“We’re not sure, but we suspect some of it might be that people have found us, and that the need has always been here. But we’ve learned how to do things better. We’re providing more food and our systems are working really well, so we’re handling a higher volume. We’re here to help.”

While the term “food pantry” may conjure up images of dusty cans nearing their expiration dates, the Needham Community Council has made sure its food is of a high quality. The NCC’s food pantry is all about “fresh first”, which involves giving out a lot of fresh produce, milk, eggs, and butter — in addition to canned items. But because the NCC both struggles with what to do with individual items and is able to buy food in bulk at a much cheaper price than a consumer could, its organizers really appreciate financial donations more than food donations.

One thing the NCC has had a lot of fun with, however, has been its thrift shop donations. While the NCC makes sure to emphasize that they’d like items that, as Robinson put it, “you’d give to your neighbors in the light of day,” Robinson and Van Amson said that COVID led to people cleaning out their houses and donating the items they no longer wanted to the thrift shop. Noting how much better they have gotten at social media as a result of the pandemic, one of the things the NCC set up is a Facebook auction for some of their most interesting items.

Because so much of their revenue comes from the thrift shop, the NCC had to adjust and hold it in an outdoor tent during the pandemic. Now, they have returned to being in-person, but are mandating masks. The NCC views the thrift shop as a meeting place for both isolated people looking to shop, and a huge boon to their volunteers who enjoy the social aspect of volunteering. 

“The other thing is, people don’t always realize that our volunteers are the heart of the council,” Robinson explained. “For many of them, it’s their social environment and how they can feel useful and supportive of their neighbors, so being able to open up and have the volunteers come back, where they’re able to see their friends, interact with people and help the community, has been great.”

Isolation has been a big issue during COVID, which has especially hurt seniors who aren’t as technologically savvy, and the underprivileged who can’t afford the technological devices that have been a godsend for so many of us during the lockdowns. The NCC stepped up in both cases by getting tablets into people’s hands and teaching people how to use them via their “Tablets and Tutors” Program.    

“We had always known before COVID that isolation for any individuals in the community is a real problem, particularly for senior citizens, and COVID exasperated that in such a significant way,” Robinson explained. Noting that a $100 tablet can be a very expensive paperweight if people don’t know how to use it, Robinson explained that the program helped people remotely for a while, which was difficult, but now they are able to have in-person classes to aid the community. The results have been great. Robinson explained that people who were afraid of or confused by internet before are now listening to podcasts, looking at photos of grandchildren, ordering groceries online, attending remote senior center classes, and overall, just enjoying being online.

But the NCC has also been helping get the tablets (and some Chromebooks) into the hands of people who understand the technology, but don’t have the resources. Van Amson mentioned that among those people, there were some who would sometimes have to wait until their children’s schoolwork was done so they could do their work on the tablets or laptops the school had given them.

The NCC has also moved their CAP (Child Assault Prevention) program to a remote one, which allowed them to get back in schools after a year away. It has continued its ESL programs, which are their only programs available to non-Needham residents (though one has to work in Needham to be eligible).

The number-one impact of COVID on the Needham Community Council, though, may just be the community’s realization that it exists, and that it’s there to help. Van Amson and Robinson both noted how many people realized they were not just helpful to the financially needy, but have programs for everyone — like their transportation program or their medical devices lending program.

While the NCC has been aided in large part by donations from individuals and businesses, their future is unclear as the question arises as to whether the donations will continue as COVID becomes less and less of an issue. With rising demand, an increase in food prices and other issues, many other food pantries shut down during COVID, but Robinson explained it was these donations from the community that allowed the NCC to stay in business. 

“I just want to really thank the Needham community for sticking with us,” she explained, “for having the faith we would be able to figure this out and financially supporting us, so we knew we had the finances to figure it out. I’m just so appreciative.”

Even as COVID case numbers drop and life returns to normal, many people in Needham continue to be appreciative of them, too.

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