Local nonprofits have had to get creative and operate with few to no volunteers amid COVID-19 transmission fears and related restrictions on in-person gatherings.
In addition to having been hit hard by a reduction in donations, some organizations have been stretched thin by the loss of volunteer help. The amount allowed for in-person indoor gatherings in Fayetteville is limited to the number of people who can maintain a minimum of six feet from each other while in the facility.
A local nonprofit, Laundry Love, provides food, detergent and funds so low-income and no-income families can wash clothing and linens. Before COVID-19, families and individuals could go into the laundromats and connect with the volunteers, who provided them with meals and helped wash, dry and fold their laundry. The charity has had to postpone its volunteer program and change its dynamic.
To make its events safer, the nonprofit now provides a drive-thru service in front of the designated laundromats, said Mary Beth Toland, Laundry Love’s community engagement director. Facilitators hand out laundry necessities, meal preparation kits and enough funds for three large loads of laundry.
“When things look a little bit better we are hoping to have our volunteers come back, but right now we are discouraging it,” Toland said. “We are keeping the numbers low in order to keep everyone safe and socially distanced.”
Pre-pandemic, facilitators helped individuals with their laundry, but they now encourage families to return to the laundromats at less-busy times to help ensure the clients’ safety. The drive-thru service has become more of a grab-and-go process, and can cause a strain on individuals who do not own a vehicle, Toland said.
Prior to the pandemic, Laundry Love wash days averaged 5-15 volunteers, Toland said. Depending on the location, Rogers, Springdale or Fayetteville, Laundry Love now sees an average of four to eight volunteers at each event.
In November 2019, the UA Volunteer Action Center logged 14,000 student volunteer hours compared to the 5,022 hours in November 2020, said Coleman Warren, a junior and GivePulse intern for the VAC. The VAC connects students to volunteer opportunities in Northwest Arkansas with mass emails, social media postings and recruitment on GivePulse.
The VAC has not surpassed 5,000 volunteer hours with three exceptions. Students logged 8,300 hours with the VAC in August 2020 and 6,320 hours in September, which was related to Center for Educational Access note-takers and Greek Life recruitment, Warren said.
One reason for the drop in volunteer hours is the result of nonprofits’ changing needs and fewer programs available for volunteers, Warren said. Some charities and nonprofits have had to reinvent the way they serve their clients, while others have had to drop their volunteer programs completely.
“It is harder for nonprofit organizations to be able to take volunteers without extra liability,” Warren said.
Other area nonprofits, like Fayetteville Animal Services, are shifting their initiatives online. The nonprofit animal shelter provides a low-cost spay and neuter program, emergency veterinarian services for strays and animals housed at the shelter, pet adoptions and animal control services.
Before the pandemic, FAS volunteers assisted in doing dishes, laundry, walking the dogs, spending time with the cats, and transporting the dogs to the shelter’s Hounds Around Town program and the Fayetteville Farmers Market.
Because FAS officials needed to limit the shelter’s human capacity to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, they suspended the shelter’s volunteer program and halted entry by members of the public in mid-March, said Ryan Gutierrez, FAS’s programs administrator.
“We like to have our volunteers here, but we’ve suspended the volunteer program because it’s just too risky,” Gutierrez said. “I know our volunteers are missing coming in. That is one program that a lot of people liked that COVID has really hit hard.”
To avoid contact with the public, animal service officers are only permitted to respond to emergency calls, Gutierrez said. Shelter officials have asked locals who find stray pets to post them on their social media pages and have a veterinarian scan them for microchips, instead of bringing the animals straight to FAS. The shelter has also started providing access to pet adoption services through the City of Fayetteville’s website.
In addition to losing their volunteers, many U.S. charities faced plummeting donations as the pandemic financially squeezed many working families. But supporters of Laundry Love have stepped up during the crisis, donating money and supplies to the charity in place of giving their time, Toland said.
Some donors have given years worth of laundry detergent, and others have also contributed money, Toland said. In one week, an eight-year-old girl collected over $600 in quarters, enough for two months of operating costs for Laundry Love, Toland said.
“Stuff like that has been really cool to see”, Toland said. “How people who would normally want to volunteer in person are finding ways to still make an impact and to make sure that Laundry Love is able to provide services during this time.”