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In Another Pandemic Year, Rising to Meet Challenges

When the pandemic forced the temporary shutdown of a Brooklyn program offering activities and services to adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, the loss for clients was difficult.

The program kept clients engaged for a few months through video conferences and over-the-phone services. When leaders prepared to invite a small group of the Community for All Day Habilitation Program participants back in person, they wanted to ensure their safety.

“That was a huge challenge, and we had to really become creative,” said La’Kisha Alvarado, the program director.

To meet social distancing requirements, the program, part of Brooklyn Community Services, had to decrease the number of participants transported on each of the three buses it uses, and make extra trips if needed. It offset the costs with money from The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, which has Brooklyn Community Services as one of its nine beneficiary agencies.

Ms. Alvarado said that the safety protocols helped reassure families about their loved ones’ health, and that clients were excited to see one another and the staff members in person again.

“They were more than happy to come back,” Ms. Alvarado said.

This year, some beneficiary organizations also turned their attention to helping distribute Covid-19 vaccines. In February, one of those groups, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, offered a pop-up vaccination event at the Betances Houses​​​ in partnership with the Bronx Rising Initiative and the Morris Heights Health Center.

Since then, the organization has continued to help with pop-up vaccine sites throughout the city, mainly at affordable housing sites connected with Catholic Charities and local parishes. Catholic Charities works with the Community Healthcare Network, which secures and distributes the vaccines. Richard Espinal, the director of housing support services and parish and community engagement, has been overseeing the effort.

“I’m almost like the carnival barker, letting folks know that we’re here and they can come get vaccinated,” Mr. Espinal said.

Much of his work involves answering questions and encouraging people to get vaccinated.

“We’re dealing with a community and a population that has a lot of underlying health conditions,” he said. Because of disparities in health care, he tries to be there to reassure New Yorkers.

Children’s Aid, another beneficiary agency, has also been working to bolster vaccinations in New York. Through a partnership with the NYC Health + Hospitals, the organization has provided testing and vaccine distribution across the city.

And UJA-Federation of New York, which is also supported by The Neediest Cases Fund, ran pop-up vaccine clinics and helped match social service agencies, schools and community centers with vaccine providers for appointments, resulting in thousands of vaccination appointments, including some for Holocaust survivors. UJA-Federation also made grants to organizations to foster vaccine education and to increase access, particularly in minority communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

In Coney Island, Brooklyn Community Services is also working to improve vaccine equity and awareness by answering questions in front of its community centers and at train stations, where staff members hand out fliers and help people sign up to get vaccinated.

Around the world, the International Rescue Committee, another beneficiary agency, has been working to protect people in refugee camps against Covid-19.

“The most important thing is that we really need to meet people where they are,” said Mesfin Teklu Tessema, the senior technical director and head of the health unit at the organization. “The way to do it is through outreach, breaking the language barrier that exists, making the information easily understandable.”

With financial support from The Neediest Cases Fund, the organization has been working to ensure that health care workers in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda have adequate personal protection equipment. Money has also been used to deliver vaccines to reach elderly Rohingya refugees in remote areas of the Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh.

To support children feeling the strain of the pandemic, First Book, another beneficiary agency of The Neediest Cases Fund, has drawn on its social and emotional learning materials.

First Book, which provides free and inexpensive books to children in need, assisted Rebecca Brinkman when much of her third-grade class returned to in-person school in March.

One of the first things Ms. Brinkman noticed was how anxious her students were. Online learning had been challenging, especially because many of her students didn’t have reliable access to the internet. Back in the classroom, her students told her that they had fears about being there and that they were nervous they’d fallen behind.

“It felt like, honestly, being in an alternate reality,” said Ms. Brinkman, 37, who has been an educator at the Cartwright School District in Phoenix for 15 years.

In early 2020, Ms. Brinkman had learned of First Book and had received a $150 grant to buy books and coloring books from the organization, which she distributed to her students and used to read aloud during remote school. She turned to First Book again this year for books like “Breathe Like a Bear,” by Kira Willey, which teaches children mindfulness exercises. And she used the group’s Trauma Toolkit, a downloadable resource to help teachers support students.

“I wish that everyone knew about First Book, because it’s been nothing but helpful,” she said.

World Central Kitchen, another Neediest Cases Fund beneficiary group, has been providing meals this year to health care workers at vaccination sites across the country.

“The past couple of years have really shown us how vulnerable so many communities are,” said Fiona Donovan, the relief operations manager at World Central Kitchen.

Recently, the organization supplied meals for health care workers at vaccination sites run by Children’s National Hospital in Washington and in Lanham, Md. Since the clinics were vaccinating children, the organization often brought fruit and cookies to pass out as a treat.

“So long as funding is available and there’s a need,” Ms. Donovan said, “we’re going to do what we can.”

Donations to The Neediest Cases Fund may be made online or with a check.

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