Polar vortex drains much of nonprofits’ resources
Organizations extended hours, searched for those stuck in the cold.
Nonprofit leaders try to ensure they are prepared for emergencies, but few expected winter weather conditions that closed most of West Michigan for nearly a week.
Amid deadly weather conditions caused by the recent polar vortex, nonprofit workers, the city and other community members banded together to protect those most affected.
Nonprofits that provide crucial services called one another to strategically decide which ones should stay open or closed, ensuring clients had a warm place to stay without too much travel, according to Wende Randall, director of the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force.
Many of the organizations that stayed open extended their hours, and an important piece of that was spreading the word about where people could access warm buildings and other services, Randall said.
To ensure no one was caught outside, Mel Trotter Ministries workers drove vans from 4 p.m.-midnight searching for those who may need help — a service the nonprofit doesn’t normally provide, according to CEO Dennis Van Kampen. Many of the workers already had worked a full day before the special outreach shift.
Van Kampen said they stopped at local businesses to ask about where people might be staying.
The workers offered shelter to people they found or rides to those who needed them. They handed out blankets, coats, gloves, scarves, and food and water.
A middle-aged woman wearing a thin jacket and sleeping in an outside doorway was so cold she couldn’t talk when the workers found her and brought her to Mel Trotter. An elderly man in a light jacket, who had had one leg amputated and was in a wheelchair, was struggling to get inside a warm convenience store when the workers found him.
“I really think that their lives may have been saved,” Van Kampen said. “I don't know what would have happened to those couple of people if we hadn’t run across them.”
Over the week, the workers brought five people to Mel Trotter and helped about 30 others, Van Kampen said.
He said Mel Trotter coordinated the efforts with other organizations more experienced with outreach, such as Pine Rest, to ensure everyone had somewhere to go.
“We saw crisis and we saw a need, and as a staff, we felt moved and compelled by our mission and vision to do more than we normally do,” Van Kampen said.
And they were in “constant communication” with the Grand Rapids Police Department about possible leads.
“They were going out checking under bridges, as well, and just trying to make sure everybody was safe.”
Mel Trotter Ministries served 500 men, women and children each night that week, Van Kampen said. The shelter typically serves about 350 to 400 people in the winter.
Kids' Food Basket, the YMCA and Grand Rapids Public Schools worked together to ensure children staying home from school still had food to eat.
“Many of those families rely on the meals that are distributed at the schools, and so having the school shut down for an extended period really can create a hardship in terms of daily meals for those families,” Randall said. “So, that's when some nonprofits really shifted into high gear.”
The Grand Valley State University Presidents’ Ball, scheduled for Feb. 1, was canceled and the students’ money was reimbursed. The 500 meals catered by Amway, costing $17,500 total, were donated to nonprofits serving food during the storm, according to Melissa Baker-Boosamra, GVSU associate director of student life.
The aftermath of the bitterly cold and snowy week has left some nonprofits with depleted resources. Now, many organizations, especially shelters and food pantries, could use help to offset some of these unexpected costs, Randall said.
No matter the weather, Van Kampen said Mel Trotter keeps extra supplies, such as mattresses and blankets, on hand so no one has to be turned away.
After the nonprofit asked on social media for more winter clothes, dozens of boxes were delivered by community members who made purchases on Amazon, which he said they gave away to prepare people for the next cold snap.
But the increased clients meant serving more food and almost doubling hired security and hospitality workers at Mel Trotter, and Van Kampen said he’s expecting quite a high heating bill next month. The community delivered when the nonprofit asked for coats, but with these issues, the most valuable donation is money.
Randall said resources for more long-term planning will be important going forward. Working toward adequate low-income housing, for example, will ensure fewer people are in need during a future crisis.
Maribeth Groen, marketing manager for Heart of West Michigan United Way, said nonprofits often have wish lists people can view before donating, to ensure their donations are needed and will be used.
“I think it's important for people to not just to go back to their daily life,” Groen said.
Randall said people should check not just with family, but also neighbors and vulnerable community members, to ensure they are prepared for the next emergency.
Groen added more than 2,000 households had their power and gas turned on during that time through help from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. A lot of people may not realize they are eligible for this type of service.
“A point of crisis can often help us (learn) what planning ahead we can do before the next emergency and occurs,” Groen said.