Nonprofits learn to adapt during 2020

Hinsdale agencies adjust deftly to deliver services despite hurdles presented by pandemic

As the new year begins, The Hinsdalean traditionally reaches out to the leaders of the village’s seven nonprofit agencies, inviting them to offer a recap of the previous year and to share one wish for the new year.

This is the second of two installments. A Jan. 7 article featured Community Memorial Foundation, Hinsdale Humane Society and The Community House.

Candor Health Education

On March 14, the day after Gov. Pritzker announced all Illinois schools would be closed due to the pandemic, Candor Health Education held its scheduled board retreat.

The agenda suddenly contained a new item.

“That was the point at which we asked the board to move ahead with virtual programming,” said Barb Thayer, executive directo, acknowledging the organization had not been equipped for such a delivery model. “We had to pivot, and we really jumped in a big way.”

The agency was also in flux regarding its identity, having shed its longtime connection with the Robert Crown family. Over the summer, the “Candor” name was unveiled. It was one more change in a twisting year, especially for the elementary and middle school students Candor serves with its sex education and drug education programs.

“This year has been crazy for schools in general,” Thayer said. “There’s been so much transition with remote learning.”

Following a spring of cancellation, the agency wound up delivering online programming to more than 10,000 kids.

“We refined things a little bit more over the summer,” Thayer said. “The learning gains are very similar (between in-person and online), and in some cases even better for the online programming.”

Among the surprise benefits for instructors was the greater openness kids felt when communicating online.

“The kids are chatting, so nobody knows who’s asking which questions. The content of the questions that we’re getting is actually more personal in the virtual programming than in the in-person programming,” Thayer related.

Classes includes Puberty I and 11, Life Begins and Teen Sexual Health, and Thayer said staff is in the process of creating a puberty program for transgender students.

“We’re constantly in the process of developing new programs and trying to do more in the social-emotional topics,” she said.

The pandemic clearly has taken on toll on youth’s psyches.

“They’re feeling more stress at home or because of the pandemic,” Thayer said. “It’s getting to be common to them.”

Although Candor streamlined operations in 2020 by letting some staff go, Thayer said hopes of restructuring and the experience gained in online delivery will help boost the 2021 outlook.

“We’re in a really great position in order to move into different markets with virtual programming,” she said.

And that will help positively impact more households.

“Families are becoming more comfortable talking about these topics, which is really good.”

HCS Family Services

As the spring of 2020 unfolded, it was clear from weekly text exchanges with pantry workers that the spike in clients was not abating, said Amy Wickstrom, executive director of HCS Family Services.

“Each week we’d say, ‘Oh, it’s another record!’ And it was a record (number of clients) almost every week,” she said. “We saw this huge surge of people needing food support, We were hoping it was going to be temporary.”

Many were first-time visitors after their jobs had fallen victim to the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It was about serving people who are coming to us who have never had to and what that feels like for them,” she said.

That was a major shift from normal operations, Wickstrom underscored, as was moving from in-pantry shopping to contactless drive-through delivery.

She recalled one Wednesday night when almost 160 cars were lined up outside the pantry located in the Anne M. Jeans School in Burr Ridge. Many had been there for hours.

“Having eyes wide open to that, it was an evolving situation that you have to adapt to on an often daily basis and be both resilient and flexible,” she said.

The support from the community in the form of financial and food donations was inspiring.

“I have never in my entire life seen anything more powerful and beautiful than the community’s response during this time,” she said. “People are just so giving, and it’s been one of the honors of my career and life to be a conduit for this incredible generosity.”

Wickstrom also credited her staff and volunteers for stepping up to the year’s unique challenges.

“The value of a team cannot be understated. There’s a point where you are so busy that you have to rely on others, and I subscribe to the philosophy that many hands make light work,” she said.

She said the organization is planning to hire a program manager to better distribute responsibilities and provide tactical assistance.

One of the hardest aspects of the pandemic has been the lack of personal interaction with clients.

“People need connection. It’s just a basic need,” she said.

And a good sense of humor helps, too.

“Sometime you’ve just got to laugh the day off and just begin again.”

Hinsdale Historical Society

2020 started out with great promise for the Hinsdale Historical Society, said Kristen Laakso, board president.

A Trvia Night at The Community House sold out and a Women’s Board luncheon and fashion show raised a fair amount of money. The organization was next looking forward to its 15th anniversary Kitchen Walk, featuring a dazzling lineup of host homes and honorary past chairpeople instrumental in the fundraiser’s evolution.

“We were about to launch this wonderful event and then COVID hit,” Laakso said. “We had to cancel it, which was both financially and emotionally difficult.”

Fortunately the Women’s Board was able to convert the walk into an online benefit. But the historical society’s most visible assets — the Hinsdale History museum and the Roger and Ruth Anderson Architecture Center and archives in Immanuel Hall — were shuttered.

Recognizing the importance of the experience for posterity, “Record Tomorrow’s History Today” was launched to solicit people’s pandemic experiences.

“We tried to collect COVID histories from local people and take social media accounts of local residents documenting what life was like in town,” she said.

The effort has yielded some contributions and the hope is to gather even more.

As restrictions eased over the summer, the society was able to mark the history museum’s 35th anniversary by offering tours.

“It was successful, the ambiance was wonderful and people were able to go through the house,” she said. “That was a little shot of enthusiasm.”

An event also was held at the R. Harold Zook Home and Studio at Katherine Legge Park.

The last quarter of the year featured a Tales from Tombstone outing at Bronswood Cemetery, a private shopping event in November and a wine pull in December, all of which boosted spirits and yielded needed financial support.

The passing of former board President Sandy Walton in October was sad news. A request that loved ones donate to the historical society was a touching gesture.

“That was very generous and a helpful injection of financial support that links the current society with its past and the fabric of the town and the mission that we’re all involved in,” Laakso said.

That mission remains as strong as ever, she suggested.

“We’re just trying to find ways to help people connect with and record their local history in a meaningful way,” she said.

Wellness House

The 30th anniversary year of Wellness House certainly did not unfold as planned.

But Lisa Kolavennu, executive director, said the group’s ability to pivot all of its programming for cancer patients and survivors online allowed it to reach thousands.

“We had 43,500 individual visits (to programs), which is remarkable,” she said. “Despite all the challenges, I think it’s important that we hang on to making that kind of impact in the community.”

Kolavennu said the transition was accomplished “in a matter of days” after the COVID-19 shutdown was announced in March. That was vital.

“Already folks dealing with cancer can feel isolated, so having access to the online program really becomes a lifeline for them,” she said.

Wellness House has been touching communities across the region for years thanks to a network of partnerships, and that need to reach out was reinforced in 2020, Kolavennu said.

“We’ve had people reaching out from new areas and zip codes — and even other states,” she said.

The annual Walk for Wellness fundraiser was turned into a virtual event. Kolavennu was happy to report it achieved its financial goal.

“We are grateful for the continued support,” she said. “We found that we were able to come up with some pretty creative solutions.”

Nearly 150 people participated in November’s “Gathering Around the Table” food talks featuring chef Bryant Terry. And the end-of the-year Wellness House Ball gala became a socially distanced affair and concert livestreamed to homes.

The hard work to recast programs in a workable format was rewarded by the response.

“It’s just been wonderful receiving the gratitude from people who really had no other ways to connect with one another,” Kolavennu said, noting many had their treatment rhythms disrupted by the pandemic. She said some health experts are predicting a “shadow curve” or sharp incline of cancer diagnoses in 2021 as those who avoided health centers decide it’s now safe to get an exam.

“Cancer didn’t take a backseat. In fact it was exacerbated by some of the stress and worry that people have experienced,” she said. “That continues to motivate us. There’s certainly a need right now and its’ going to get worse.”

That means finding ways to get programming to anyone who can use it — and hopefully being able to also do it in person soon.

“We are looking forward to throwing the doors open and welcoming people back into the building.”

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean