It is hard to have any discussion today that doesn’t center around COVID-19.

But when you talk to Mark Valli about the emerging emergency needs facing him as CEO at Norwescap, a well-known and highly regarded community action agency that provides a wide variety of programs and services to over 30,000 low-income individuals and families, he consistently hones in on a few key themes.

Mark is a 30,000 foot strategic thinker who knows when it is necessary to get into grass roots tactics.  Being realistic about the challenges that are evolving daily in response to the pandemic, he emphasizes the need to pivot, the need to be flexible, the need for radical change,and  the need to reinvent processes and procedures.

Change can be painful, but in the midst of the coronavirus, change is the only option.

Going program by program, Mark highlighted the transformations that have been implemented in order to continue serving the community with essential services in the wake of COVID-19 and a staggering increase in demand.

Social distancing amidst the rapid spread of the virus has forced Norwescap to change its approach in every facet of its programming.

Food Banks: Typically Norwescap distributes two million pounds of food to 100 food pantries across Hunterdon, Warren and Sussex counties.  But growing consumption is one of the side effects of the coronavirus influence. More people are sheltering at home and addressing the need for three meals a day for their family. Panic amongst low income, under employed or unemployed adults is driving spikes in food consumption which is having a significant impact on the food banks, resulting in empty shelves in some cases. In fact, they are already 100,000 pounds over contract from where they usually are at this point in the year.

Fortunately, small and large donors have stepped up, ranging from a $100million gift from Jeff Bezo to support from companies like Wakefern and individuals as well.

Family Success Center: This drop-in program was held in a school facility which is now closed. The group can no longer meet in person, but the needs of the families have not gone away, in fact the needs are exploding as the virus spreads.  This is where Mark introduced the concept of pivoting.  Instead of meeting at the school, they meet virtually. The Center’s Head Start food pantry was immediately relocated to the Norwescap headquarters where appointments are scheduled so families can continue to obtain their groceries. The Phillipsburg School District also got involved and committed to preparing free and reduced cost breakfasts and lunches in the school cafeteria. When just a handful of people showed up, the staff pivoted again and began going door-to-door, delivering bagged meals. In this way they were able to feed over 200 families without jeopardizing anyone’s well-being.

Pathways to Prosperity: Like so many of the Norwescap programs, this Sussex support group hosted face-to-face meetings designed as a resource for college bound students. It was quickly converted to a virtual program with the help of a donor who purchased laptops for everyone, enabling distance learning in collaboration with the Sussex County Community College.

And in a twist of fate, the students, who were themselves recipients of Norwescap’s support, have taken it upon themselves to deliver food to those in need. With a ‘pay it forward’ attitude, clients are helping other clients in the face of adversity!

Child Care Resource Referrals: One of the core responsibilities at Norwescap is to ensure the delivery of subsidies by processing vouchers for thousands of families in the counties they serve.  The process includes a face-to-face check-in at Norwescap prior to approval for the subsidy. When face-to-face meetings could no longer take place, alternative procedures were quickly put in place.  Staff established a routine that enables them to stagger their schedule over a 36 hour week with 12 hour days, including weekends.

WIC (Women Infants and Children) Program:  To execute this essential program, the scenario has been the same as all the others – deliver services through in-person meetings. To participate In WIC, the women came to Norwescap to consult with their case workers prior to being approved and receiving checks that enable them to go grocery shopping. Despite the stringent parameters that have been put in place to contain COVID-19, nonetheless, these are desperate families. What did Mark suggest? Pivot! Instead of personal meetings, clients are using video tools, including the Zoom platform, to meet with Norwescap personnel. The priorities brought by the Coronavirus emergency forced changes in protocol and in the system.  Now the staff has installed special printers in their homes to produce the subsidy checks. The overhaul was in place within one week, and, not surprising, they are actually ahead of schedule!

Where there is a will, there is a way.

Career Life and Transition Program: Instead of interacting in person, the participants in this program are learning new skills, building a powerful network, leveraging a breadth of resources and gaining the necessary confidence they need to re-enter the work force and start fresh. In a dramatic shift, this intimate program turned into a virtual event where people can interact with each other safely from their own homes. And as an unforeseen consequence, they have greatly increased the number of people who can participate in the program just by offering remote access.

While the words that come to mind when thinking about this pandemic generally include unprecedented, unimaginable, or even unthinkable, the words that describe our emotional reaction to it are anxious, scared, stressed and concerned. But at Norwescap, the staff, volunteers, funders, and leaders are finding extraordinary ways to deliver emergency measures that replace the norms by thinking in terms and words that include being flexible and focusing on the positive by putting innovative, novel, and imaginative new approaches in place.