As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across Vermont in March, Central Vermont BBF and community partners rallied to address the needs of its residents. Early childhood partners in Central Vermont sought to help children and their families access health, mental health and education services that suddenly moved on-line and left them disconnected without devices or internet service. There was not an easy solution, but partners took on the challenge together.
Our community mobilized to fill obvious needs such as housing, food, diapers, formula and other basic needs. Organized efforts such as the Washington & Northern Orange Counties Regional Response Command Center (WNOC-RRCC) is a unified response of local community services providing emergency protective measures during the COVOD-19 pandemic. Collaborative efforts between Capstone Vermont, Downstreet, the Family Center of Washington County (FCWCVT) and others provided basic needs to the most vulnerable families. In addition to housing and meals, diapers and formula were delivered when needed. Childcare for essential workers was organized and supported so that the main structure of the region could continue to serve its residents. All the while, core community agencies, organizations and businesses maintained connections through established networking meetings such as the Central Vermont Building Bright Futures Regional Council (CVBBF), the Perinatal Mental Health Coalition; a partnership lead by Good Beginning of Central Vermont (GBCV), the local Vermont Early Childhood Network, and others. It was during these meetings that regional partners celebrated successes and identified other gaps in services shared across the early childhood system that were elevated due to the pandemic.
One shared and persistent issue for direct service providers was that of connectivity with many families. Home visiting, telehealth, and continuum of education efforts were thwarted by lack of virtual connections with some families. The CVBBF Regional Council in April initiated a work group to address the matter. Volunteers from Good Beginnings of Central Vermont, Family Center of Washington County, Washington County Youth Service Bureau (WCYSB) and Green Mountain United Way (GMUW) began to tackle this barrier to services for families in our community.
Immediately, the group recognized the complexity of the situation. The more we learned, the more we understood the challenge of meeting the need of a wide range of service providers coupled with an array of potential concerns on the behalf of families, including lack of appropriate devices in the home, no physical connection to the internet, digital literacy, lack of funds for an internet service provider (ISP), and fears about privacy and technology in general.
The work group created a Connectivity Needs Assessment and distributed it to families through CVBBF partner list-servs, social media and word of mouth. This simple form was designed to evaluate the community’s overall need, which would inform a plan of action. Some of the challenges facing families included families who had no internet, insufficient internet, or lacked devices to meet their needs.
It was clear from the beginning that the work group would need technological advice, donations and volunteers. The survey summary revealed the complicated and often multi-layered difficulties faced by each family. For example:
- Families report they can not afford a landline, cell phone minutes or internet service, or had overdue bills
- Insufficient number of devices to support a family’s needs for school and work (old computer, one device for many family members, one device for parents’ work)
- Unstable internet due to rural nature of region and families unable to travel to get better coverage
- Tech support needed to download apps that connect to their children’s teachers, such as Zoom
- Families are homeless or do not have stable housing so they are unable to hook up utilities in their name
The group reached out to local businesses for technical guidance and the Regional Response Command Center for volunteers. The outreach was successful when three local tech businesses offered to help: rbTechnologies, Computer Barn, and Vermont Computing Cooperative. Additionally, the Command Center volunteer coordinator was on board. We were so thankful for this outpouring of support to help families connect with community supports during the COVID closures!
At this juncture, the work group created a Family Connectivity Project web page to contain the provider survey, donation information, and volunteer information, which is housed on the GMUW website. As more and more families were identified, the complexity of each situation indicated the necessity of creating a tailored plan for each family. It became evident that our group had to meet the families where they were. The fluidity and uniqueness of every situation demanded that a “one size” would not fit all. Sustainability was a longer term goal, but immediacy was paramount. As Gretchen Elias, Executive Director of GBCV commented:
“…with the 2 families I’m working with right now, the value of getting them connected now, so that they can resume services that have been interrupted, even for a little while, outweighs the importance of having a sustainability strategy identified in advance. In part because we don’t actually know whether they will be depending on remote-only services for another 2 weeks, two months, or off-and-on for 2 years… Simply because the needs exist right now – but for how long, we don’t really know.”
To respond quickly to individual needs of families, a FCWCVT or GBCV volunteer contacts each family to explore strategies for solutions. The family gets technical guidance from Rubin Bennett, owner of rbTechnologies. GMUW monitors the website and organizes donated devices as well as overseeing the project budget that includes a $10,000 donation made by rbTechnologies along with a matching funds campaign. As of now, the collaborative work group has solved connectivity issues for 10 families, each with unique solutions. There are four families in progress, and more being identified each week. An integrated collaborative system to strategically address barriers to virtual direct services for families with young children, regardless of income remains the goal. The group plans to help families access direct services whenever connectivity is the issue in Central Vermont. Please visit the Family Connectivity Project landing page to learn how you can help.