1,000 days later, Worcester Together Coalition continues addressing needs of residents

WORCESTER — On March 16 of 2020, a group of government, nonprofit and business stakeholders met at the Boys & Girls Club in Worcester to discuss the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. A thousand days later, a coalition that received its name that day is continuing to present a more unified response to the needs of residents.

That group, known as the Worcester Together Coalition, became a citywide partnership between government and private agencies providing aid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and expanding into other areas.

"That has changed everything that we do since COVID," Dr. Matilde Castiel, the city's commissioner of health and human services, said of the coalition's approach. "There were bad things about having COVID. The good thing about what it did was it brought our community together and it brought our agencies to be working together."

Coalition's roots

The coalition has its roots three years before COVID dominated the world and before social distancing was an everyday term, according to Tim Garvin, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts.

United Way of Central Massachusetts President and CEO Tim Garvin

In 2017, Hurricane Maria's devastating impact on Puerto Rico led to families fleeing to the states. Knowing that Worcester was likely to receive Puerto Rican refugees who were going to stay with relatives, a group of stakeholders organized to plan for assisting in their arrival and met every Friday, Garvin said.

When Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency March 10 of 2020, Garvin said that the United Way worked to raise money and several partners from Hurricane Maria response began to organize as well.

The coordination culminated in the March 16 meeting with over 25 participants including several political, nonprofit, educational and business officials.

"I think Worcester Together came together because everybody wanted to do something and didn't know how to do it. And many people accepted the idea that more than ever before this thing, COVID-19, is so big — and so much bigger then we imagined — that unless we do it together, we're going to be fractured and we aren't going to be effective."

Tim Garvin, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Massachusetts

Among the attendees were U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern of Worcester, then-City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr., Mayor Joseph M. Petty, Garvin, then-Worcester Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda, District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera, several school officials, nonprofit leaders and several business representatives.

Garvin said that Rivera came up with the name Worcester Together when the group was brainstorming a title.

McGovern confident in coalition

In a video recorded after the meeting, McGovern said he was confident in the coalition.

"Whether it's from education, to small business, to housing, you name it. We're going to come together and make sure we deal with this," McGovern said in the video. "I feel really confident after this meeting that we have a plan, that people are working together."

Congressman James P. McGovern

McGovern said his office also helped coalition members navigate federal funding programs passed in response to the pandemic and said his conversations with the coalition influenced policy proposals he made in Congress.

The coalition also established a fund to raise money for the coalition's work.

In a retrospective interview, McGovern said he appreciated the coalition in part for helping to spread accurate COVID information, something he believes was not being effectively messaged by former President Donald J. Trump.

"I remember them working with local restaurants to prepare meals for people, then delivering those meals to people for free," McGovern said. "The whole community was involved in this."

Responding to pandemic

Garvin said he believes Worcester Together formed out of many people's desires to respond to what appeared to be a major pandemic situation.

"I think Worcester Together came together because everybody wanted to do something and didn't know how to do it," Garvin said. "And many people accepted the idea that more than ever before this thing, COVID-19, is so big — and so much bigger then we imagined — that unless we do it together, we're going to be fractured and we aren't going to be effective."

Garvin said the participants of the March 16 meeting repeatedly emphasized the importance of a direct response on matters such as providing food, masks and toilet paper at a time of hoarding as well as a message of hope that the crisis was not insurmountable.

UMass Memorial Health's, Boys & Girls Club's involvement

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Worcester, said she offered to host the meeting after Garvin and Rivera reached out to her about the formation of a group to respond to the pandemic because the Boys & Girls Club is centrally located with ample parking.

James Leary, vice president of government and community relations at UMass Memorial Health, was one of the attendees of the March 16 meeting. He said that after the initial meeting, there was an immediate transition to a twice-weekly Worcester Together meeting.

"For us at UMass Memorial, it just made all the sense in the world," Leary said. "There were the huge internal challenges in trying to deal with COVID, but it was also making sure that we were coordinating externally with all of the organizations that were impacted."

As a representative for a hospital network, Leary said it was critical in the early days to spread the word about preventive measures, to have a forum to discuss how cases were trending in the city and relay the best strategies to respond.

In responding to the pandemic, Garvin laid out three major facets of the immediate aftermath of the state of emergency: First responders and frontline workers still needed child care as they continued to work in-person, the possible spread of COVID in the city's homeless population and providing food to people who were quarantining.

The Boys & Girls Club led an effort to apply for an emergency child care license to provide child care to children. The city set up temporary emergency shelters to fight the spread of COVID in the unhoused and coalition members raised money to provide a hot meal delivery service for quarantining people through local restaurants that was culturally appropriate for the resident.

McGovern helped introduce a bill called the FEED Act in early 2021 to allow FEMA to reimburse states for partnering with restaurants for hit-meal delivery that was partially inspired by programs such as Worcester Together's.

In addition, Hamilton said the Boys & Girls Club and at least 12 other agencies became remote learning hubs when it became apparent the fall 2020 school year would start remotely.

Leary said that UMass Memorial was able to refer people without homes who needed to quarantine to the appropriate shelters and plan where testing sites would be easily accessible due to the combined efforts of Worcester Together.

The hospital's data analysis was also useful to the other members of the coalition, Leary said. UMass Memorial could trace where the COVID hotspots were in the city and look into the demographics of infection. The hospital's data was also useful during the COVID-19 vaccine campaign, Leary said.

Food Research & Action Center steps in

Gina Plata-Nino, who currently serves as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program deputy director at the Food Research & Action Center, was a member of the original group that assisted with resettling Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria who also attended the first meeting at the Boys & Girls Club.

Gina Plata-Nino, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program deputy director at the Food Research & Action Center

She volunteered to take on shelter, housing and wraparound services, a term for child mental health support services. As part of meetings to understand the emerging issues with families during the pandemic, Plata-Nino said that families were not receiving resources during quarantine.

To address access to services, Plata-Nino said the hot meal program was organized to help families and support local restaurants. In addition, Plata-Nino said they formed partnerships with Catholic Charities Worcester County, the Family Resource Centers and Amazon to deliver food pantry items and personal protective equipment to those who used the pantries.

However, Plata-Nino said the most successful and ongoing innovation from the coalition's family care group was a one point of contact with the Family Resource Center.

"These nonprofits closed and people were just getting a lot of closed doors and phone numbers," Plata-Nino said. "We worked with the Family Resource Center so that they can be the point of contact and we created internal referrals."

For example, residents can call the Family Resource Center seeking legal assistance or food assistance and be referred to an agency that can provide them with more sustainable assistance, Plata-Nino said.

Catholic Charities Worcester County's involvement

Maydee Morales, director of emergency services at Catholic Charities Worcester County, started her involvement with Worcester Together by taking part in the coalition's food security group. She also took part in working with the homeless population.

Raymond Souza, senior aide at the food pantry and emergency stabilization program at Catholic Charities on Hammond Street, stocks shelves. In background is Maydee Morales, coordinator for emergency stabilization and homelessness prevention.

Morales was tasked with providing food for people in need through Catholic Charities' food pantry. Something that has continued as housing costs have risen and with high inflation

"One of the greatest needs that increased as a result of the pandemic, and continues to be at an increased level now, is the utilization of our food pantry," Morales said. "We used to see about 400 households a month and now we see about 400 households a week."

YWCA of Central Massachusetts' role

State Sen.-elect Robyn K. Kennedy of Worcester, who served as an executive of the YWCA of Central Massachusetts in 2020, said her early work with Worcester Together came in two main forms.

State Sen.-elect Robyn K. Kennedy of Worcester

The YWCA was part of the network of youth providers that opened as emergency child care providers for essential workers. In addition, Kennedy said providers received reports that women were being kicked out, were unable to stay or were being assaulted at emergency shelters set up for unhoused people. She joined a group to set up a shelter for women that included Nicole Bell of Living in Freedom Together Worcester and now-District 5 City Councilor Etel Haxhiaj in her capacity at the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance.

Later on, Kennedy would take part in a working group focused on homelessness and responded to the housing needs of 12 families who lost housing out of COVID worries and did not qualify for state support.

Kennedy said the YWCA also stayed open throughout the pandemic to continue to provide services and aid in other efforts including being one of the 12 agencies serving as remote learning hubs.

City offers help

Peter Dunn, chief development officer for the city, said that the city was involved in the partnership with the United Way and Greater Worcester Community Foundation from the start in March of 2020.

Dunn said the city had a multifaceted role in Worcester Together. As the head of the executive office of economic development, Dunn said he worked to get the right information to business owners and residents and the city had to deliver regular updates to the public.

"From the beginning, one of the things that the mayor and City Manager Augustus tried to do was make sure that the community at large had as much real-time information available to them as possible," Dunn said. "That's why they started with those daily press conferences."

Dunn's office worked with the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce to ensure that businesses understood COVID policies and knew about available assistance.

Dr. Matilde Castiel, commissioner of health and human services for Worcester

Castiel said Worcester Together was instrumental in setting up temporary shelters at schools that had closed due to the pandemic and other temporary shelters along with supplying the shelters.

In addition to the shelters, Castiel said the city received help in providing bathrooms and showers to homeless people who were not in shelters. Castiel said Worcester Together has also been useful in discussing a housing-first model for treating homelessness.

Moreover, Castiel said that the coalition helped facilitate medical students coming onboard to administer COVID testing, and later, vaccinations. A van was also procured for travel to set up vaccine clinics with money through the United Way and Greater Worcester Community Foundation, Castiel said.

Alleviating inequities

As time went on and focus began shifting to the long-existing inequities that the pandemic further exposed, the shareholders behind Worcester Together saw opportunities to continue to work on alleviating these issues.

Garvin pointed to raising money to purchase baby formula during the formula shortage earlier this year and settling refugees from Afghanistan in 2021.

Morales said she has worked with others in the community on helping with the resettling of Afghan and Haitian refugees including other nonprofits and Worcester Public Schools.

"This is my expertise. This is what I do. I make sure that families have the diapers, the clothes, the food," Morales said. "Somebody else who does housing works with families on housing."

In addition, Leary said that COVID data UMass Memorial has shared has been helpful in policy surrounding social determinants of health, the factors that influence personal health outside of a hospital setting such as housing quality and food security. The coalition has begun to use this data to plan food, housing and even transportation policy initiatives, Leary said.

Coalition remains useful

For Dunn, the continuing coalition remains useful as the city works on the application of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act and in informing residents about any resources that become available through the federal funding.

As Kennedy prepares to become a state senator, she confidently said that Worcester Together and responding to the pandemic can inform policy and looks forward to continuing work with the coalition.

"A broad takeaway that we saw globally through the pandemic was how often that the status quo wasn't really working," Kennedy said. "One of the biggest things that I saw and will keep going back to is our community knows how to care for each other. We know the solutions that work. We know that one-size-fits all models don't work."

Kennedy pointed to setting up a woman's shelter to cater to a population who did not respond well to regular emergency shelters.

Several members of Worcester Together said that the coalition has promoted collaboration between the various bodies in the city and helped to streamline responses to issues that arise. Multiple members said the shareholders were also able to put aside ego, bring in diverse perspectives for their common goal and discuss where they may be existing gaps in care.

Collaborative model worth sharing

Castiel said the collaborative model that the city took in responding to COVID is something she shares at conferences.

"That has been the model where we have been able to burnish the community to really work together on COVID," Castiel said. "One of the biggest pieces was that we no longer worked in silos. We were working together."

When talking to other Boys & Girls clubs in other areas across the state, Hamilton said it was unusual to see corporate, public, nonprofit and private entities come together like they did. Hamilton said the Worcester agencies also realized they did not have the time to overthink their response and could adjust as needed.

Plata-Nino said that Worcester Together also taught that systems needed to be created to address both the immediate and long-term needs, adding that the food insecurity task force that arose from that time continues to meet. She added that the coalition's advocacy for a restaurant meals program in the state Legislature showed how effective policy can be crucial in addition to funding and collaboration.

Agencies also extended into domains that they did not usually focus on. Hamilton pointed out that the Boys & Girls Club is not usually as heavily involved in housing and food matters, but her agency understood that it had to play a role in responding to the all-hands-on-deck crisis.

Hamilton added that they were able to work with agencies who had more expertise on housing while the Boys & Girls Club could assist others with child care needs.

"We all had a better understanding of what the agency could provide individually," Hamilton said. "But also how all of us could come together to provide for our community as one."

Kennedy said that the agencies were able to pool resources effectively.

"Everyone was able to bring forth the resources and capacities they had without fighting over who was getting funding for what pieces," Kennedy said. "It was really everyone stepping up."

Morales said the pandemic has helped the agencies get to know each other better and they can collaborate better on matters such as funding for immediate issues.

"I think pre-pandemic, we all knew we were all out there, but now we know who everybody else is," Morales said.

This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester Together Coalition continues addressing needs 1,000 days in