Collective impact squared: Local nonprofits and the United Way of Southern Chester County02/14/2022 10:35PM ● By Steven Hoffman
The second anniversary of pandemic shutdowns here in Southern Chester County invites reflection on the heartbreak and challenges the community has faced and the losses that everyone, on some level, has experienced. While looking at the past two years and the present situation through the angle of gratitude does nothing to mitigate loss, this perspective does refract light and hope in a way that feels helpful right now.
“The hard work and sacrifice of local first responders and frontline workers have saved countless lives,” said Kennett Collaborative executive director Bo Wright, “and local nonprofit organizations in many different sectors have worked together to pull the community through extraordinarily challenging times. As we look back, and as we look around today, we’re struck by the incredible power of collaboration. There are so many examples of collective efforts that have made a much greater impact than the sum of their parts.”
Organizations like Kennett Area Community Service (KACS), LCH, The Garage Community and Youth Center, Mighty Writers El Futuro—Kennett, Tick Tock Early Learning Center, and others have collated individual donations of food, money, and essential supplies that together add up to literal tons of support. They’ve coordinated staff and volunteers to make sure that underserved families have had necessities including food, shelter, transportation, medical supplies, and childcare. Local school districts have pivoted to keep children safe, supported, connected, and learning.
But as various entities have worked together, they’ve been able to “square” their impact and meet needs that would have been simply too big for any single organization to tackle on its own. Most of these collaborations began at weekly Zoom meetings convened by the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON), an initiative of Square Roots Collective led by Kate Daneker. Many dozens of community leaders convene at these meetings to identify needs, share resources, and form task forces to focus on different areas.
One important example of this multiplication of collective impact responding to an urgent need identified at a SCCON meeting was the just-in-time COVID testing and multi-lingual education among underserved populations at local mushroom farms spearheaded by The United Way of Southern Chester County (UWSCC) in June 2020. While the what ifs don’t bear thinking about, the rapid ripple effects of thousands more positive cases of the original coronavirus strain right here in the community, coupled with lack of accurate information about effective precautions, would have been devastating.
Squaring collective impact to address Avondale flooding
UWSCC has been bringing the same kind of bigger picture, strategic thinking and leadership to address another significant issue that affects local residents, nonprofits, and the wider community. The repeated flooding of the Avondale Apartments is an example, said UWSCC’s CEO Carrie Freeman, of a problem that devastates families, poses ongoing health risks, places a heavy burden on municipal fire and emergency services, and significantly drains the resources of area nonprofits on a regular basis.
It's been an “ongoing disaster” for decades, Freeman said. The Avondale Apartments sit in a floodway and on a floodplain, and its first-floor residences flood at least once a year. “There are significant risks to life and safety every time there’s a flood,” Freeman said. “Up to 250 people—not just residents of the apartments—lose their housing for months at a time and area nonprofits pick up the tab to house and feed the displaced residents.”
UWSCC, with its community roots and connections that are both deep and broad, has been leading a multi-agency, multi-municipal, public-private collaboration to identify and implement sustainable solutions. The broad-based group of concerned stakeholders Freeman has assembled includes municipal staff and elected officials from Avondale and surrounding communities, community and nonprofit leaders, the landlord, and experts from Stroud Water Research Center and the Chester County Water Resources Authority.
The main causes of the flooding are storm water runoff due to increased development in other municipalities over the decades and climate intensification. Storm waters flow south through the East Branch of the White Clay Creek, through Loch Nairn, across Route 1, and spill into the “bowl” of Avondale Borough. Even a few inches of rainfall in a short time can cause flooding in Avondale. Many of the keys to long-term mitigation, therefore, lie upstream.
“We’re working on federal grants and design changes and are in discussion with landowners as well. It’s a long-term project, but once again it’s a matter of identifying the problem and some strategies and engaging stakeholders to work together for long-term and sustainable change. New Garden Township is willing to partner on storm water mitigation in the new park at Loch Nairn, and Shane Morgan, National Wild and Scenic River Program Manager for the Whiteclay Watershed Association is working on grants for a watershed assessment and restoration plan and for a community engagement project to gather input from Avondale Borough residents.
Because there is no quick and easy solution either to this flooding or to the urgent need for safe, affordable housing—and because the next storm is always just a forecast away—Freeman is spearheading another vital collaboration. “We’re working with the Borough and agencies to create a written emergency plan for the residents, with the names and numbers of local organizations who can help and take people in.” The Red Cross is generally spreading its resources across any number of disaster sites during these emergencies, Freeman said, and with concerns including the language barrier, residents are often understandably fearful of getting on a bus to go somewhere like Downingtown.
In all of this, UWSCC works to unify and amplify the voices of the underserved. “It has been so wonderful how Carrie has really spearheaded the initiative to look into systemic ways to address this long-time issue,” said Kristin Proto, executive director of The Garage. “As an organization, we can only go so far, but as a funder and convener of many different community stakeholders, having UWSCC lead in this space has allowed us to speak with one voice on behalf of the residents!”
The Garage is currently raising funds to renovate the former Avondale Fire House, a stone’s throw from the apartments but, Proto clarifies, “on high ground.” In this new location, the Garage will expand its programming for middle- and high-school students in the Avon Grove School District as well as social and community services for local families.
The frontline agencies that UWSCC supports are grateful for how UWSCC, as a “nonprofit’s nonprofit,” multiplies the impact each individual organization can have in the community. “The United Way of Southern Chester County (UWSCC) improves lives by mobilizing the caring power of our communities,” said Leah Reynolds, executive director of KACS. “UWSCC is an important leader bringing together individual donors and businesses to help meet the needs of the organizations that make this region healthy and stable. KACS is grateful to receive much-needed funding and partnership from the UWSCC to provide important life-sustaining services to those in need."
“COVID took our biggest fundraiser away from us”
While the work of local nonprofits on the frontlines has been nothing short of heroic, bringing many in the community through the past two years and some of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, UWSCC and the agencies it supports have not had a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. The ongoing effects of the pandemic among underserved people in our community may be quieter, but they’re no less insidious.
The stark reality is that the pandemic and its ripple effects continue to stretch the capacity of Southern Chester County’s support agencies. “It’s still hitting the working poor the hardest,” Freeman said. “Omicron is pervasive, and people in low-paying jobs who have to interact with the public are catching it in unprecedented numbers.” While they may not be as sick or have to be hospitalized, it’s what happens next that can be economically devastating.
“When someone tests positive, they have to stay home for five days and lose a week of pay. When it spreads through a family, kids can’t go back to school or daycare and that means more days off work without pay,” Freeman said. For thousands of people right here in this community, a week or more of lost income means they’re unable to pay rent and buy food and other necessities. The numbers of people that KACS feeds, Freeman said, have not fallen back to pre-pandemic levels.
The frontline workers in nonprofit agencies are also testing positive for COVID in large numbers—which only multiplies the challenges of serving those in need. Here again, collective impact has made a difference. “When LCH received a major drop of test kits recently, they donated a significant portion of them to local nonprofits for their staff. It’s an awesome, thoughtful collaboration,” Freeman said.
At the same time as these needs continue to escalate, “COVID also took our biggest fundraiser away from us,” Freeman said. The Kennett Chocolate Lovers Festival, which has raised significant funds for UWSCC for years—in addition to being one of the most popular events on the local calendar—has had to be cancelled for the second year in a row. While their “Year of Living Chocolate” raffle and their Box o’ Chocolate sale coming in March are creative pivots, and great community collaborations, they don’t bring in anywhere near the funding UWSCC needs to give local agencies the support they depend on.
“A gift to the United Way is taking care of your community,” Freeman said.
More information about the United Way of Southern Chester County, including the raffle and chocolate sale, can be found at unitedwayscc.org.