SOUTH COAST — Since the pandemic began, one local private nonprofit saw a 54% increase in food pantry access in both Coos and Curry counties.
It also saw a 53.2% increase in emergency meals served in Coos County.
Oregon Coast Community Action covers both Coos and Curry counties, with services that include the South Coast Food Share and home energy assistance.
“It is alarming,” said Kim Brick, ORCCA’s newly named executive director. “Even if you were okay before (the pandemic), you may have lost your job and you may be losing your home. People are falling.
“People are scared.”
According to Brick, ORCCA expects the need for services to level off soon before spiking between 10% to 25% in the next few months.
And all of this hit just two weeks after she was selected to lead the organization, chosen from three final candidates to replace former Executive Director Mike Lehman. Brick believes one of the reasons she stood out is also something that has helped steer the nonprofit during these uncertain economic times.
“Really, I think it came down to relationships and community,” she said. “I grew up here, I’ve worked for the organization for 20 years, and I have a strong foundation and a real passion and love for the citizens of our county.”
Brick remembered that the board spoke early on its desire to bring ORCCA’s teams together, from its early childhood program Head Start to its Court Appointed Special Advocates program, which benefits children in the foster system.
“Getting those teams together and having a more cohesive foundation for the whole organization, I think, was a big deal for the board,” Brick said. She wasted no time adding folks to ORCCA’s leadership team to represent more areas of the organization, from CASA, the food share, to technology.
Then two short weeks after she was selected as executive director, COVID-19 began sweeping across the globe. Brick said she, like the rest of the South Coast, had been alerted to what was happening worldwide.
“But then the lockdowns came,” she said. “We were trying to learn how to function in a world that did not know how to function in this pandemic. … We had to figure out how to serve the clients we had and not do it in a traditional way like we had been.”
To make her early days as executive director even harder, once Gov. Kate Brown announced the school closures, ORCCA’s Head Start program aligned with the orders and also shut down.
“…That’s a ton of kiddos down the coast and in Reedsport,” Brick said, referring to the families with children enrolled in the program. The program offered research-based curriculum, free and healthy meals, as well as inclusive services for children with disabilities.
“… So, we asked ‘how can we serve those guys?’” Brick said. “And I credit the teams for thinking outside the box.”
Knowing that, first and foremost, families needed food, ORCCA reached out to new partners to meet the area's needs. According to Brick, ORCCA increased its food distribution by 101,142 pounds just in March alone.
“We were seeing a ton of people access our food banks who never had before,” she said. “People were getting laid off, so we asked how can we get food out to folks who don’t have transportation and are the neediest of the needy?”
ORCCA got creative and utilized its Head Start buses, as well as its family engagement specialists, to work with the South Coast Food Share. Together, a larger system was made to get food out to families.
“They are packaging other items like backpacks and literacy tools, taking them to families with the buses and delivering them like a knock-and-run,” Brick said, adding that then the family is notified when the items are outside.
Because there was such an increased need seen at the food share, ORCCA looked at expanding the service even more. To meet the need, the warehouse and cooler space for the food required wasn’t enough.
“One of our directors for our Early Learning Hub reached out to the City of North Bend to work out a deal to use the North Bend Community Center,” Brick said. “They are letting us use it free of charge.”
ORCCA now has staff at the community center “because there is such a demand and increase in need right now,” she said.
But to continue programs while people practice social distancing, video conferencing, like for most now, has helped connect ORCCA services to the public. One of the benefits has been to the organization’s Socialization for Family Group Time. Usually these were help when parents come together with their infants or toddlers, accompanied by a learning activity. Instead, it is being done via video conferencing.
“The teacher will come on and sing songs to the kiddos and all FaceTime together,” Brick said. “… I participated in one and it is so sweet. The kids are happy to see their friends. … That piece is so important because for some kiddos, this is the only stable place in their lives, so to get them where they can see friends and teachers and still get packets to work on is beautiful.”
Reeling from COVID-19
Though ORCCA has been able to manage its many programs throughout the pandemic, Brick is looking ahead and both bracing and planning. As she put it, she is “hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.”
ORCCA has also been helping the public work with electric companies and utility companies to make sure they don’t lose those vital services. While the moratorium on shutting off services has helped, it will be over soon and “then those bills will rush in.”
“This is not a vacation from your responsibilities, it is a stop gap,” Brick said, adding that ORCCA is in the process of securing some of the COVID-19 rent release funds to help those who aren’t able to pay bills once the moratorium is lifted. That way, through ORCCA, funds will be accessible for those people.
Until then, Brick said ORCCA is looking at additional ways to be a strong support for the community.
“It has been trial by fire, for sure,” Brick said of her first three months as executive director.
For more information about ORCCA’s programs, or to benefit from these services, call 541-435-7080.