The Athens Community Council on Aging was forced to make a quick pivot virtually overnight when the pandemic hit in March. Publisher Betsy Bean asked CEO Eve Anthony how they navigated the changes while maintaining the mission of the ACCA.
Boom: Do you recall when you first heard about the coronavirus?
Anthony: I remember watching the news about the Washington state nursing home where the impact was first felt [in February]. I spent the next day with our long-term care ombudsman who advocates for nursing home residents. We couldn’t know for sure if it would come our way, but we started to have conversations around it. Then, as there started to be national discussion about older adults having more complications and being at higher risk, our leadership team began dusting off our emergency preparedness plan.
We update the plan every year but the section that hadn’t been touched since the early 1980s was the section on pandemics. We have a lot of policies and procedures for shutting ACCA down for weather or other situations so we just adapted that.
Thank goodness we had some connections in the public health department. We began talking to them and put a plan A, B, and C in place. If this happens, we’ll do this; if this happens…Then overnight, right around March 10, which I remember because it’s my birthday, and I had planned to take the day off. Instead, I came in because I suddenly realized ‘we’re going to Plan C.’ [Plan C was shutting everything down. On March 16, everything closed, including the Senior centers and then the Day center].
We had already ordered 10,000 pounds of food from the Food Bank in case we had to send it out to our clients. We began packing up bags and making phone calls. We told them, ‘we’re going to close but we’re not going to leave you alone. We’ll still be supporting you, just supporting you in different ways.’
Boom: Can you explain a little more about Plan C?
Anthony: I remember sitting in the office with the leadership team and having the conversation: ‘We’ll shut everything down, but how do we continue to support these vulnerable people that need us the most?’
And we also assumed we would get calls from seniors in the community needing our services for the first time.
So, we looked at what we do best, and we knew we already had an existing model—Meals on Wheels. It has three critical components: Meals, safety checks, socialization. We decided we’re going to switch all of our ACCA programs to that model except for our long-term care ombudsman, who would continue to work with families in nursing homes.
I thought it was really important that our staff feel reassured because I was feeling incredibly anxious about everything, from my family, our staff, our clients, the future of our agency.
So when we closed, we held a meeting with all staff—the last time we have been in the same room together. I made a promise to them that ‘there will be no senior left behind and no paycheck will be lost.’
I had no idea how we were going to do that, but I felt we would do the things that we know best. We can make this happen. We have a purpose.
Boom: What were some of the first steps you took?
Anthony: I spent probably the first four days of the pandemic on the phone—my battery would be dead by noon most days. I reached out locally first, and I got countless phone calls from different groups, local government, businesses asking what they could do to help us—I never felt we were in it alone. I wake up every day so much more grateful than I was prior to COVID. When I think back to those first few weeks—the outpouring of support from the community was amazing.
Boom: How did your employees’ tasks change from what they were doing to what you asked them to do?
Anthony: We asked a lot of them. I told them, ‘I have no idea how we’re going to do this, but I can guarantee it isn’t going to be easy.’
As we evolved, their job descriptions changed. We all have very different job descriptions than we did a year ago. Our health activity aides who help in day health have been packing food every day, doing meal delivery routes, working the drive-through, meal distribution throughout the community.
Staff who were program managers are now database people; other staff oversee food distribution. We had to rent space at Cotton Press [event space] for food distribution. Food acquisition is a challenge—we have to get in thousands of pounds of food every day. We were getting 50 calls a day, and our food vendors couldn’t keep up, so we contracted with Epting Events for frozen meals.
We have to manage a database of distribution points, which includes routes, schools, other nonprofits distributing food, and Saturday distribution. We broke up into two teams, the A team and B team, in case one team gets exposed, we can bring the other team in to take over. They don’t see one another, which has been hard because we’re a pretty tight group.
One of the hardest challenges is they don’t see their clients. When weather was nice, they were doing driveway visits or visits through the door, but it’s not the same as face-to-face. It’s been a challenge to find other ways to engage with people.
They’ve done extraordinary work—they’ve adapted so easily to everything we asked them to do, and they’ve gone over and above.
We’ve had a 100 percent increase in clients—we’re now serving 2,200 older adults. We went from serving 180 meals to 5,000. People didn’t know we existed until now.
Boom: Have you had any COVID cases?
Anthony: We’ve had three cases at ACCA, but their exposure wasn’t at work. We have an assembly line at Cotton Press where we maintain distance, use masks, have ventilation.
Boom: Did you ever reach a point of despair?
Anthony: For a while I was fearful, fearful for our staff. The sustainability of the organization is always at the top of my concerns. I would say I was fearful but not overwhelmed—that fear actually helped me make better decisions.
Anthony says she and her team are hoping and aiming for opening back up again in April.