By Jeff Yost
A cloudy future greeted Rhonda Schuessler as she assessed the state of the world in March 2020. Here Wee Grow Child Development Center, the daycare she operates in Sidney, had recently closed its doors to protect families and staff from the novel coronavirus. Though temporary, the closure created uncertainty.
She wasn’t alone. Nebraskans all over reeled at the prospect of stalwart local businesses and organizations becoming secondhand casualties of the pandemic. Fortunately, residents weren’t willing to stand on the sidelines while their neighbors struggled. Echoing the grassroots response to 2019’s devastating floods, Nebraskans united to ensure their communities made it through the early months of COVID-19. That good work continues as we confront the pandemic’s long winter ahead.
Over the past 25 years, volunteers built the Nebraska Community Foundation network to empower community growth, not respond to a worldwide pandemic. But those connections proved resilient enough to withstand the test, empowering volunteers to provide support as their communities came to terms with a tumultuous period.
The Sidney Community Donor-Advised Fund granted more than $184,000 to local childcare providers in May. For Schuessler, the donation exemplified the caring spirit of the community—and may have been the difference between a temporary setback and a permanent loss.
That caring spirit surfaced across the state. Two affiliated funds in Thayer County—Hebron Community Foundation Fund and Foundation for Thayer County Health Services Fund—applied for Bridging the Learning Gap grants to dramatically expand the scope of mental health services in area schools. The two funds received a combined $40,000 to launch a behavioral health program designed to address often unseen needs among students.
Across the United States, rural areas are more likely to experience a shortage of professional assistance, according to the CDC, with 61% of areas reporting mental health professional shortages being rural or partially rural. The situation in Thayer County mirrors much of rural America. There are limited mental health services available for the county’s three school districts, TCHSF wrote in its grant application. The hospital provides therapy programs through a third-party contractor, but the services are limited to adults 65 or older. Getting proper care to the younger population is a priority for the county.
The funding allows Thayer County Health Services to hire a behavioral health professional to undertake a variety of roles in serving the communities in the county including training school staff, providing resources, and working with families to pinpoint needs. In the grant application, the funds estimated the new professional will spend most of their time providing services for school age students, their family members, and staff at the schools. During the remaining time, they will provide services for other adults in Thayer County.
The Nebraska Community Foundation network may have been built decades ago in calmer times, but it proved indispensable in a climate few could have predicted. Local cooperation and unrestricted endowments made it possible for communities across the state to extend aid to institutions in need as the pandemic settled in Nebraska. The flexibility of their unrestricted endowments—built through years of grassroots connection—allowed affiliated funds to use their payouts to bridge the learning gap, connect families to loved ones in nursing facilities and boost other local organizations who feed and shelter those most affected.
The impacts of the pandemic aren’t over. Far from it. Access to quality childcare, healthcare, and long-term care facilities were already challenges for our Greater Nebraska communities and 2020 has exacerbated the complexities they present. Though we are far from solving the issues, this year and rural residents across our state are proving that everything we need is right where we are—the assets, the ingenuity, the relationships, the resolve. Visit NebraskaHometown.org to learn how other Greater Nebraska communities are stepping up to the challenges 2020 presents and consider supporting your hometown affiliated fund in their work to build stronger communities and a Greater Nebraska.