Oswego Funders Collaborate to Help Residents During COVID-19 Crisis

The Richard S. Shineman Foundation’s March 26 board meeting agenda focused on reviewing applications for its first grant round of the year. By then the coronavirus pandemic had closed schools and non-essential businesses in New York. The state was under stay-at-home orders to prevent spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. The Foundation’s board set aside their agenda to discuss how they could help.

“In 10 days COVID-19 ratcheted up to such an extent the board said, ‘We can’t think about these grants. We have to think about what we can do to help with this emergency,’” said Karen Goetz, executive director of the Shineman Foundation. “We thought the best and fastest way to help was to put money into a special fund that could directly help Oswego County organizations.”

On March 31, Goetz and leaders of the Oswego County Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Oswego County announced they had established the Oswego County COVID-19 Community Support Fund. The fund, administered by the Central New York Community Foundation, supports immediate, basic needs of nonprofit organizations working with vulnerable populations.

The Shineman Foundation seeded the fund with $100,000 and authorized up to $150,000 in funding. The Oswego County Community Foundation (an affiliate of the Syracuse-based Central New York Community Foundation) contributed $29,500.

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“This is a centralized platform so the money will help our most vulnerable neighbors now and in the weeks to come,” said Patrick Dewine, executive director of the United Way of Greater Oswego County. Oswego County service providers “have been around for a long time and they know what the front-line needs are.”

The fund had raised $146,108 by May 4. Funders awarded $95,650 to 13 grantees by that date. Donations have ranged from $25 to thousands of dollars, Dewine said. “We’ve seen a generous response from local businesses and individuals,” he said. “In times of crisis, people are always looking to help.”

The rapid effects of COVID-19 hit human services organizations hard. Kids out of school and shuttered businesses spurred an increased need for food assistance. Organizations rearranged spaces and shifted operations online to deliver essential services safely. The global health crisis also canceled events and fundraisers.

Despite disruptions to daily life, Oswego County has experienced few COVID-19 cases. The New York State Department of Health recorded 76 cases as of May 12. Two Oswego County residents died of the disease, although the deaths occurred outside the county. Neighboring Onondaga County, though, recorded 1,308 cases and 69 deaths by the same date.

Officials attribute Oswego County’s low numbers to its lower density. But its demographics – a population of 119,104 across 952 square miles – create challenges for human service organizations even in the best of times. Transportation is a barrier to opportunities, and people in some isolated corners of the county have no cellphone signal or Wi-Fi.

“The population is about a quarter of Onondaga County’s and it’s dispersed across a large geographic area,” said Peter Dunn, Community Foundation president and CEO. “That’s why we found value in partnering with people working closest to the concerns in local communities.”

There’s a practical side as well. “Oswego County gets the benefit of the administration and management of the Community Foundation instead of remaking the wheel,” Dunn said. “It’s a good example of collaboration among multiple funders and people on the ground to support the community in an efficient and effective way.”

Not surprisingly, the first requests were for food and hygiene essentials. Grantees include Mexico Food Pantry at St. Anne Mother of Mary Catholic Church, Oswego YMCA, the Phoenix Area Food Pantry, and the Salvation Army.

Organizations also needed medical supplies and personal protective equipment. Donald McFee Memorial Ambulance Service received a grant to buy equipment and medical supplies to treat patients. Oswego Industries received a grant to produce cotton masks and gowns for local health care providers, including Menter Ambulance and Oswego Health.

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Technology emerged as another big need. The Public Broadcasting Council of CNY (WCNY) for Broadcast TV Classroom Network received a grant to support pre-K to 12thgrade instruction by teachers who are helping children learn from home. Farnham Family Services received a grant to implement a remote workforce.

The fund benefited from the partners’ community knowledge gleaned from existing relationships with residents, Dewine said. “We work with a lot of people who are on the cusp of poverty,” he said. “If they have car trouble they can’t pay for repairs and they may lose time at work. They needed their stimulus checks to shop for groceries or pay the rent.”

It’s hard to predict what needs will emerge as the crisis continues. But some problems – like the digital divide that leaves some people without access to cellphone or internet service – raise broader policy questions for public officials to address, Dunn said.

“The bigger concern in the philanthropic community is the impact of the virus on state and county resources and the impact that will have on contracts for nonprofits and human services,” he said. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put the state’s projected budget shortfall at $13.3 billion.

“So far the fund is being responsive to requests,” Dunn said. “Of course, there will be limits. We don’t know if furloughs will become layoffs or how quickly the economy will rebound.

Goetz, who lived in Oswego as a child, expects future grant requests from nonprofits trying to get back to work as the crisis recedes. “We have to remain flexible and nimble and listen to what we’re hearing from our partner organizations,” she said.

That’s how the fund’s partners put the project together quickly. “It shows what people can do when they cooperate,” Goetz said. “It was an emergency. People just had to take all of their blinders off and had to work together because each of us by ourselves cannot accomplish what needs to be done in a crisis situation.”

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