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As Vermont Prepares For Surge In COVID-19 Cases, Governor Calls For Volunteers

Volunteer Serves Food to Driver
The Vermont Food Bank, Courtesy
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A volunteer serves free produce to a recipient at one of the Vermont Food Bank's new drive-through Veggie Van Go pick-up locations.

Just one week after issuing an executive order advising Vermonters to “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” Gov. Phil Scott has put out a call for volunteers and set up a new web portal to organize and connect them

“I am asking every Vermonter to dig deep and find a way to give more in this incredibly challenging time,” Scott said March 31. “As we prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases expected in the coming weeks, it will require each and every one of us to do our part to ease the burden on our health care system, the struggles of those less fortunate, and ultimately, to save the lives of our friends.” 

The state’s new volunteer website directs residents with health care training to register with regional Medical Reserve Corps units. Those teams can supplement local health care providers if hospitals get overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

The Vermont Medical Reserve Corps is seeking volunteers with the following backgrounds:

  • Licensed and certified health care professionals
  • People with mental health or related professional experience
  • Health care administrative experience including medical data entry or language translators
  • People who have worked with displaced individuals, such as through homeless shelter programs

The state has also temporarily eased licensing requirements to make it easier for providers in other states or those with lapsed licenses to assist.

“We have to make sure we have people in place in order to have the surge sites be successful,” Scott said during a press conference Wednesday. 

For more about Gov. Phil Scott’s Wednesday update regarding the state’s response to the coronavirus, head here.

Though the demand for medical volunteers and personal protective equipment remains high, the governor called for volunteers with other skills to sign up and be ready to help with Vermont’s coronavirus response — among them drivers, food service workers and construction workers. 

“Our state is at its best when Vermonters pull together to help each other,” Scott said. “The coming weeks will be very difficult, but united in common purpose. We will face, fight and defeat this virus — and emerge stronger together.” 

High demand for food bank services

As Vermonters across the state grapple with closed businesses, schools and childcare centers, the shift has thrown many into a state of economic uncertainty. The sudden job loss has driven up demand at local food banks, according to Vermont Food Bank spokesperson Nicole Whalen.

“Any time there is a disaster, it disproportionately impacts low-income people and the most vulnerable members of our community,” Whalen said. “It pushes people on the edge of making their budget work into a place where they can’t.”

Normally, she said, the Vermont Food Bank services about one in four Vermonters over the course of a year. But the organization’s 215 partner food shelves and community meal sites have all reported an increase in the number of people coming through their doors in the last two weeks.

At the same time, food banks have changed how they distribute food, pre-bagging and boxing home deliveries rather than allowing people to “shop” at a food shelf for free food. This shift, Whalen said, is labor intensive and relies heavily on volunteers.

"Any time there is a disaster, it disproportionately impacts low-income people and the most vulnerable members of our community." — Nicole Whalen, The Vermont Food Bank

“So much of the way charitable food has been distributed is by convening people,” shesaid. “Now, we are asking our network to double what they are putting out, but also to change all of their systems.” 

On a typical day, the Vermont Food Bank serves about 200 families at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, the St. Johnsbury pick-up station for its VeggieVanGo program, a service that donates fresh produce to Vermonters in need. 

Last week, program volunteers served pre-packaged produce to 400 St. Johnsbury-area families. Similarly, at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Winooski, volunteers provided packages for 650 families — nearly twice as many as on a typical day. 

“This is just the beginning,” Whalen said. “We know that the longer people are out of work and that hourly workers aren’t getting their hours, it is going to get harder and harder for families and individuals to make ends meet.”

Currently, the organization is recruiting in-person volunteers to support food shelves. Hands are needed to sort donations, help with distribution and delivering of food to vulnerable community members, and with packing boxes and bags. 

For more about how homeless shelters are adapting their services to prevent the spread of COVID-19, head here.

No more than five volunteers may work at a particular packaging location at a given time, and all are stationed six feet apart, per the Vermont Health Department’s guidelines for social distancing. Drive-through pick up events can accommodate up to 10 volunteers.

At Vermont Food Bank’s Barre facility, the organization has set up a large tent outside, so that volunteers can carry out tasks in open air, to decrease the likelihood of the coronavirus spreading between workers.

Man packs box with non-perishables
Credit The Vermont Food Bank, Courtesy
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A volunteer for the Vermont Food Bank packs boxes with food for delivery to Vermonters in need at one of the organization's food hubs.

“We have been working closely with Vermont’s Emergency Operations Center,” Whalen said. “This effort and the people it takes to make it happen are deemed essential.” 

At this time, the food bank is asking that volunteers use their discretion. Anyone who is considered to be high risk for contracting COVID-19, or who works or lives with high-risk populations, is discouraged from volunteering.

For those who cannot volunteer, cash donations are more helpful than food donations. To account for the possibility of supply chain disruption, the Vermont Food Bank is ordering two to three months’ worth of food at a time.

And food bank volunteers aren’t the only Vermont organization providing “essential” volunteer services during COVID-19. 

Meals On Wheels

As the largest provider of Meals on Wheels in Vermont, Age Well Vermont’s Community Senior Meal Programdelivers 1,025 meals per day to Vermonters over 60 who experience food insecurity. Additionally, the program serves meals to disabled seniors, some of the individuals who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Vermont seniors living in poverty in 2019: 12,868 Vermont seniors who lived alone in 2019: 43,180 Vermonters who filed for unemployment as of April 1: More than 30,000Sources: Age Well Vermont, Department of Labor

"The greatest need for volunteers in the food system right now is for people to deliver meals to those who really cannot go out to get them," said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont. 

Delivery looks different now than in the past. According to Tracey Shamberger, director of public relations for Age Well Vermont, volunteers deliver pre-packaged meals by leaving them outside program recipients’ doors.

“In the past, our protocol was for volunteers to go inside with people,” Shamberger said, to combat social isolation.

The pre-arranged drop-off serves two purposes: Food delivery and a safety check.

Man loads box into car
Credit Age Well Vermont, courtesy
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A volunteer for Age Well Vermont's Meals on Wheels delivery program loads his car for a two-hour shift delivering meals to elderly Vermonters.

The organization is currently seeking healthy volunteers to deliver meals across 60 routes in Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle Counties, and to work at food hubs. Volunteers are also needed to pick up groceries and prescriptions for elderly residents. 

As of the end of March, Age Well Vermont had already seen a 30% increase in the requests it receives for Meals on Wheels from last year, a figure they expect to climb to 40% over the next six months.

“Due to the high demand of Meals on Wheels requests, we have gaps in funding,” Shamberger said.

Make a donation

SerVermont, the state’s coordinating center for AmeriCorps volunteers, has shifted most of its volunteers to remote work soliciting donations for organizations, helping with finances or coordinating response efforts.

“Organizations across Vermont are working hard to figure out how to deliver their essential services in the safest manner possible, utilizing as few people as they can,” said Philip Kolling, executive director of SerVermont. 

Kolling suggested that Vermonters also look for ways to volunteer remotely or make donations to their favorite local organizations. He added that grassroots efforts to help home-bound neighbors with grocery shopping go a long way. 

He added, however: “The best service Vermonters can provide each other right now is staying home. There will be plenty of opportunities to volunteer and serve others after this has passed.” 

For those who are high-risk or who have any symptoms of illness, a cash donation and friendly phone call may be the best way to support a neighbor in need.

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