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An employee of the Austin nonprofit Drive a Senior Central Texas cleans a van before picking up a client. (Photo courtesy of Drive a Senior Central Texas) 

Boosting Texas Nonprofits Providing COVID-19 Relief

As Texas lifts restrictions implemented to prevent coronavirus spread, Nicole Sarkar is trying to spread resources while safely transporting elderly clients to doctor appointments that had been postponed for weeks.

As executive director of Drive a Senior Central Texas, Sarkar’s work to serve clients — all older than age 60 and at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease — has become more challenging since the outbreak began. The organization, which transports elderly Austin-area residents free of charge, has stopped allowing volunteers to drive clients to and from appointments and activities to avoid potential infection.

Instead, a handful of part-time employees drive clients individually, rather than in groups, to limit exposure. Dozens of volunteers who typically would be driving people have become phone buddies, run errands and ordered goods online for some of the organization’s more isolated clients.

“This is the time for nonprofits to really innovate and determine how to serve the population we want to keep safe,” says Sarkar, whose organization serves about 350 people. “Many more seniors need our help.”

But threat of coronavirus spread forced cancellation of Drive a Senior’s primary fall fundraising event. Meanwhile, the organization’s costs have increased to cover the additional rides needed to safely get clients where they need to be.

The organization received a grant from the Communities Foundation of Texas just as Sarkar began a funding search. The foundation — with a $1 million donation from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas -- established its Collaborative Grant Fund to assist nonprofits with COVID-19 relief efforts statewide.

Sarkar’s local community foundation, the Austin Community Foundation, selected Drive a Senior for a grant.

“It was a really nice surprise,” Sarkar says. “The timing of this grant is actually really important. We’re seeing an increase in our clients’ needs as things start opening back up. We need to take care of them.”

BCBSTX’s support will help nonprofits throughout Texas provide personal protective equipment to first responders, service for elderly residents and childcare for first responders and healthcare professionals.

As the coronavirus outbreak’s economic fallout wreaks havoc, nonprofits are trying to help more people who have been laid off and lost jobs while bracing for donation shortfalls as businesses close or cut back on giving. A recent survey by the Charities Aid Foundation of America found almost all nonprofits have been negatively affected by the pandemic. More than 70% are reporting significant drops in contributions.

"We’re seeing an increase in our clients’ needs as things start opening back up. We need to take care of them.”

In Texas, nearly 106,800 nonprofits employ more than half a million people. They provide services, including health and dental care, food, transportation and educational needs, for a population of 30 million people and spur the economy with $217 billion in spending every year. Many have annual budgets less than $50,000.

The Communities Foundation of Texas, which manages 1,000 charitable funds for individuals, families and companies, is helping nonprofits by launching the Collaborative Grant Fund in a time of unprecedented need.

“Our community foundations across Texas have a long history of supporting local communities and helping families and individuals thrive,” says Monica Egert Smith, chief relationship officer at Communities Foundation of Texas. “(BCBSTX’s) $1 million investment will help address some of Texas’ most urgent needs related to COVID-19.”

More than 110 grants were awarded to organizations in almost half of Texas’ 254 counties.

“Making an impact to improve the overall health of our communities is what we strive to do with our community partners each and every day,” says Sheena Payne, community affairs director for BCBSTX. “Our goal with the $1 million grant to the Communities Foundation of Texas was to make a direct impact to as many nonprofit organizations across Texas as possible.”

The Coastal Bend Food Bank in Corpus Christi is using the grant it received to assemble and deliver 3,000 food boxes to elderly residents to limit their coronavirus exposure. The boxes include fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as cleaning supplies.

“These boxes are a little more costly,” says food bank executive director Bea Hanson. “But I hate for old folks to get sick.”

Every year, the food bank provides more than 10 million pounds of food to residents in 11 south Texas counties. It has struggled to keep up with increased need created by the coronavirus outbreak. People in about 5,500 vehicles waited for hours to receive food at recent Corpus Christi mobile food distribution sites.

“There’s no way we could do it without the funding,” Hanson says. “The well dries up fast if we don’t keep putting water in it.”

She credits the generosity of volunteers and donors, as well as her staff, for pulling together at such a critical time.

“I have never seen the community come together like this,” she says. “It’s been a very special time. It’s been a blessing despite the misery.”

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association