Looking back at how Oakdale Neighbors have helped the community during the COVID-19 pandemic

Since 1996, Oakdale Neighbors has provided asset-based community development to the southeast neighborhood of Grand Rapids. Targeting the area from Hall to Burton and Eastern to Giddings, Oakdale Neighbors was founded with a mission to “walk hand in hand with [its] neighbors.” What began as a family mentoring program that helped develop jobs, find housing, and meet family needs, has grown to include several youth mentoring and education programs, adult financial and computer literacy programs, monthly neighborhood safety meetings, and Boston Square Community Bikes, a free do-it-yourself bike shop. Despite the organization’s success, COVID-19 and its subsequent need for quarantine, have provided a unique set of challenges to an organization so dedicated to creating connection in the community. Since COVID-19 began, Director of Oakdale Neighbors, Pastor Kennith Hoskins says, “Our work has intensified.” 

As with many other businesses, COVID-19 forced Oakdale Neighbors to close their doors and make dramatic changes to programming in a short period of time. Hoskins says that efforts began before quarantine by sourcing funding to meet emerging needs, which meant scrambling to apply for a $5,000 Heart of West Michigan United Way grant. This critical funding, once awarded, was immediately used to put together care packages of essential items, which were directly distributed to those in need in the community. The care packages were designed to serve new immediate needs that were developing as COVID-19 began to spread. As area businesses were closing, residents were losing work, making money tighter for even basic needs items and as panic began to spread certain vital necessities, such as toilet paper and disinfecting cleaning products, were becoming scarce. 

Given Oakdale Neighbors’ personal relationship to the community, those especially vulnerable and immediately impacted in the neighborhood were identified using records of previously served families. Those initially identified were reached out to personally, using previously listed phone numbers, or visited in person using addresses on file. After confirming a need, these targeted families were given priority for the care packages. As the program continued and given the unique circumstances that the COVID-19 pandemic created, a nearly universal need was identified in the neighborhood, which made door-to-door delivery appropriate in some instances. LaShaunda Hoskins, Rev. Hoskin’s daughter, who volunteered with the program to help organize the delivery of the packages, says, “It was a great need. A lot of the people spoke to how they needed an item or were missing something or weren't able to get [it]. Every one we delivered met a need.” 

As case numbers continued to rise in March 2020, this personal approach quickly became inappropriate and as the risk of spreading infection increased, so did the need for a new method for their community outreach. And while 50 packages were able to be distributed, once COVID-19 was officially listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a pandemic, Oakdale Neighbors was again forced to change their usual door-to-door approach.

To continue their service, Oakdale Neighbors partnered with the Family Independence Initiative, a project that offered in-need families a one-time direct deposit in response to COVID-19. While Oakdale Neighbors were unable to touch the lives of their families in-person, they pivoted to stimulate their bank accounts. Each family that applied, after qualifying, received a one-time personal grant of $500. In total, 78 families within the community were able to take advantage of the partnership totaling $39,000 in direct community stimulus. However, this partnership was temporary, only lasting until May 2020, and, while direct funding was helpful, it was only a temporary solution. Oakdale Neighbors was still faced with a daunting challenge — continuing to provide vital community services during a global pandemic. 

While Oakdale Neighbors was able to find creative ways to help their community during COVID-19 with new sources of grant funding, there was still the question of how to deliver their core services during quarantine. In all, at the outset of quarantine, there were seven main programs run by the organization  — the Lamp Post Safety and Financial Literacy Program, the Learning Café, Boston Square Community Bikes, a Comprenew Connect Computer Training course, the Chess Club, a Treasure Hunt and a youth Robotics program. Each met a unique need in the community that existed before and continued after the pandemic, and shared the common theme of coming together, which during the quarantine was impossible, at least in person. 

While the majority of these seven programs were forced to suspend usual activities over the past year, Oakdale Neighbors found unique solutions using social media, new communications technology, and an appropriately altered approach to creating social connection. The Lamp Post Safety and Financial Literacy Program and the Learning Café were able to continue using Zoom, and still meet monthly. And Boston Square Community Bikes was able to find a new approach that allowed them to continue services without risking exposure.

However, this new reliance on technology created additional problems for the community. Access to computers, internet and the know-how to use these tools were always needed in the community but, in the wake of COVID-19, these needs have become especially dire. Initially, Oakdale Neighbors was able to offer $180 computer vouchers for families and participants of the Comprenew Connect Computer Training course so they could continue their studies at home. But as schools began shifting to online classes, computers became the core need for students to access education. A need that Oakdale Neighbors responded to appropriately. 

“Kids didn’t have computers at home. It was a huge issue at Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) and NHA (National Heritage Academics),” says Bruce Boman, youth director at Oakdale Neighbors. As classes moved online, Oakdale Neighbors sought to “give computers to kids” and worked to provide every student with a computer who did not have access to one at home, Boman says. 

Through donations and additional grant funding, Oakdale Neighbors was able to distribute 38 computers to students directly. In addition, the organization helped pay for internet utility bills and provided Wi-Fi hot spots when necessary, helping meet concurrent needs as they emerged. Through this process, Oakdale Neighbors was able to continue their tutoring and youth mentorship programs online, even creating a new partnership with GVSU student volunteers who were able to offer Zoom tutoring and college preparation. This challenge even created an opportunity for one former student of the tutoring program, who was hired by Oakdale Neighbors to do translation work for refugee families. 

While the future of post-pandemic community service remains uncertain, as restrictions ease, Oakdale Neighbors is increasingly hopeful that it will be able to resume its regular services soon. When considering resuming in-person programs such as computer literacy courses, Hoskins says,“mid-June is the goal, but it's dependent upon the positivity rate of the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

In either case, Oakdale Neighbors will be walking with their community, ready to respond to needs as they develop. Plans to offer summer Zoom tutoring courses and other online programs ensure that gaps in service will be minimal regardless of the circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested community organization’s capacity for adaptability and their disaster preparedness. Oakdale Neighbors have faced this test, adapted and are moving into an uncertain future with the resilience and confidence of a strong community. 
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