As COVID-19 continues its assault on our most vulnerable neighbors, people of color, families in poverty, elders, the infirm, and those living with disabilities face mounting hardship. Not often making the headlines, children with special needs and their parents have lost access to the educational programs and group activities that wove together their social, emotional, and mental health safety net. While some of those activities have been restored, many of these families have continued to live in strict isolation since March.
“For my students, mental health has been a real issue. Underlying conditions make it difficult for them to be out in community,” says Delight Lester, executive director of Arts in Motion, a nonprofit offering adaptive instruction in creative arts for the physically, emotionally, or mentally challenged. “We’ve really abandoned this group. Think of what a parent with a nonverbal child needs, with that continuous hands-on care. A lot of them aren’t even letting aides come in because they don’t want the virus in their homes. One of our families has locked down since March. They have not gone anywhere and have groceries delivered just to protect their children.”
That’s why Lester applied to the Kent County Non-Profit Organization COVID-19 Grant Fund for help. Set up in July by the Kent County Board of Commissioners, the fund is distributing $9.5 million in federal CARES Act dollars to local nonprofit and human service organizations providing COVID-19 response. Grants ranging from $5,000 to $150,000 will fund COVID-related services that support food security, personal hygiene, transportation, at-risk families and youth, children’s educational programs, and mental and behavioral health.
Arts in Motion is using Kent County grant funds to develop virtual gym, music, and dance classes and take-home art class kits. Their instructors now offer approximately 18 virtual classes a week to keep students moving. They are also creating 10-minute dance and drumming videos that special education programs in local schools can use to break up and add interest to their online curriculum.
“Everybody in this COVID time needs a creative outlet. To write, paint, physically move is almost crucial to making it through. That’s the hole we are trying to fill,” Lester says. “If the students can’t Zoom, we do Facetime, send cards, and keep in contact as much as possible so they know that we care about them. I have driven to their houses and stood outdoors and waved, talked, smiled and got giggles. I have letters from parents with children who were so depressed but once they found our Zoom classes, it made it all the better.”
The funds also make it possible for Arts in Motion to pay staff to do scaled down classes on site. Before COVID-19, the studio had a capacity to teach 25 students, now only eight can join in—not enough to offset the organization’s expense of offering the class.
“One thing that concerned me when COVID hit, a lot of funds were geared to businesses and larger nonprofits. I was very concerned about how many small nonprofits we could lose. There was a lot of money out there, but the small nonprofits were really struggling,” Lester says. “This will keep us alive, to be honest.”
Another hardship for Arts in Motion, the annual spring fundraiser that keeps it moving had to be cancelled. And, it looks like the annual November fundraiser will be cancelled, too. About half of the COVID-19 grant money will help the organization pay for utilities, insurance, and the other bare-bones costs until they can fully reopen all onsite programs.
“Many of our students don’t have a clear understanding of social distancing during hands on instruction and that limits their ability to participate, as well,” Lester says. “It makes sense that we have to worry about food and housing, and I don’t want to take away from that. At the same time, I am seeing this population, the parents, and the caregivers and I have to advocate for them. It’s a population that could easily be left behind during a pandemic.”
Kent County nonprofits can apply for grants through October 1, 2020, or until all funds are allocated. To date, 71 Kent County organizations have been awarded $2.3 million in grants. Another $1.4 million has been earmarked for 19 more organizations that are in the midst of submitting final paperwork. A partner in the grant program, Heart of West Michigan United Way has assembled a diverse, volunteer review team to make final funding decisions. According to awardees’ reports, those benefiting from their programs are 20.9% African American/Black, 20.3% Hispanic/Latino, 16.9% White/Caucasian, 12.2% multi-racial or other race, 9.5% Asian, 7.4%Native American and 1.4% Pacific Islander.
“Prior to the pandemic, many families and individuals struggled to meet their basic needs. COVID-19 has worsened the strain on those who were already struggling and caused others to experience difficulties for the first time in their lives,” said Michelle Van Dyke, president/CEO Heart of West Michigan United Way. “These dollars provide critical relief to nonprofits who are working tirelessly to serve the growing needs of so many in our community.”
Photos courtesy Arts in Motion.