By Mary Fuller
Since being appointed United Way’s Bryan County area director last year, I have continued to see and learn great things about our community.
As a Bryan County resident for over 10 years, I know one thing for sure. Those of us who live here love this community, our home. I was feeling good about our progress and the year ahead before this unprecedented public health and economic crisis began to unfold.
After our beloved St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns, we knew there would be immediate needs to meet and long-term effects, which are only just beginning to emerge.
Even before the pandemic, we knew a number of people in our communities struggled daily to keep the roof over their heads and feed their families. United Way of the Coastal Empire, along with many community partners, such as Bryan County Family Connections, have always helped families meet their basic needs for food and shelter.
Over recent weeks, this group of people has grown exponentially in number due to the closures related to COVID-19. Many may not realize that 25% of Bryan County residents (www.unitedforalice. org), or 1 in every 4 individuals, live in households that are asset limited, income constrained and employed (known as ALICE). They earn above the federal poverty level, but don’t earn enough to afford a bare-bones household budget.
The workers in these families care for our children, support our health, keep us safe and provide services that make our lives better.
Unfortunately, they are also the workers that have been disproportionately impacted by recent closures.
So when a family is living paycheck to paycheck, they are unable to easily recover from the loss of two months’ pay, or longer, even if they receive a stimulus check or two.
Currently, many landlords, mortgage and utility companies are postponing evictions and shut offs, while eliminating late fees, but very few are providing discounts or elimination of these bills that will eventually come due with large balances.
In addition, many small business owners, who may or may not be part of the 1-in-4 “ALICE” households, have been significantly impacted.
In 2017, the U.S. Census indicated that Bryan County had almost 3,000 businesses with no employees.
Often, family owned businesses rely on their business income to support not only their family but also their employees’ families – without significant extra revenue to put away in the bank for emergency situations.
Bryan County has many small businesses with just a few employees, such as restaurants, shops, salons and personal services, which have all been impacted by closures and social isolation mandates.
Finally, we have seen that our unemployment offices are overwhelmed as they were not prepared for the number of people who would apply for this financial assistance.
Some people are receiving the financial support they need and others have found themselves ineligible for a variety of reasons or have gotten lost in the application process.
What we all know is that the results of the pandemic caught us all off guard and the first few weeks were completely reactionary.
Things changed so fast that it was difficult for any agency or organization to keep up, and every individual was just trying their best to manage the special circumstances of their own lives.
The United Way of the Coastal Empire started the COVID-19 Rapid Response fund to help assist local families during this crisis in the same way we have assisted in other local disasters and emergencies.
Donations have been collected since March 24 for this fund, and immediately the funds were being distributed in the community through our 211-telephone helpline and county offices. Every dollar of the fund is being used to help individuals and families retain stable housing and provide financial assistance for other critical needs such as child care or medical expenses.
In our Bryan County office alone, we saw an increase of 700% in the number of calls received in the first week of April, compared to our normal call volume.
People were calling because they were worried, they did not know how they were going to feed their families and pay the bills to keep a roof over their heads.
The stress, anxiety and uncertainty that the pandemic has created adds a new layer of complexity that many of us are struggling to manage, as well as constant adapting to the ever-changing recommendations for safety and concerns about financial instability now and in the long-term. In the Coastal Empire, United Way has worked with thousands of people to try to help figure out a way to get them through this crisis, and have financially helped over 800 friends and neighbors in Bryan, Chatham, Effingham and Liberty counties.
At United Way of the Coastal Empire, we are responding as quickly as possible, trying to be proactive and working to adapt to the “new normal.” The generosity of our community has enabled United Way to again meet many of our community’s most basic needs.
We will continue to do so as we work through the long path to recovery – helping to make sure the people of our community are safe, fed, healthy, educated and financially stable.
Please reach out to us if you would like to help or if you need assistance. We are all in this together.
Mary Fuller is United Way’s Bryan County area director. She can be contacted at email@example.com.