Back in April, we spoke with Gretchen Elias, executive director of Good Beginnings of Central Vermont, about how this nonprofit has had to adjust the way it serves its community during the COVID-19 crisis. We caught up with Gretchen to get an update on how Good Beginnings has been doing during the pandemic.
Kristin: A lot has changed since we first spoke back in April. What has the evolution been like of how Good Beginnings operates during the time between then and now?
Gretchen: The past eight months have been a time of constant adaptation. It is quite striking to think back to our operating mindset in April/May, vs in July/August, and finally to how things began to change rapidly again in October. The spring was definitely crisis mode on all fronts – figuring out how to adapt our programs and continue to support families, while also figuring out how to keep our own organization functioning smoothly, in an environment where we had so little information about the actual level of risk and how best to take precautions.
Then during the summer months, there was this period of relative stability that was a godsend to us, organizationally. Summer is usually our slowest time of year at Good Beginnings – families tend to reach out to us less over the summer months, for a variety of reasons, even in normal times. And this summer, we used that time to take a breath and think about what we wanted to have in place for the upcoming winter. Top priority was to flesh out our remote support model for Postpartum Angels so that volunteers would feel equipped to work with families this way. Ana has so much experience and professional knowledge related to providing high quality phone-based emotional support to families. And never before has there been pressure to transfer that knowledge to our volunteers at this scale. She did a great job accomplishing just that over the summer: building out new orientation and training materials, developing a ‘flow’ for phone check ins that is analogous to the flow of in-person visits, and offering volunteers a range of different options for developing this skill set. Whereas in the spring it felt like we were just tapping any volunteer who was willing to dive in and call families, now we have an established program model for them to use, with a structure to follow, and guidelines and expectations for what phone-based support involves.
Those months of reflecting on what happened in the spring, regrouping, and building out systems and supports for volunteers and families alike based on what we’d learned – that was invaluable and we all agreed at the end of the summer that we felt surprisingly prepared for the months ahead. But at the same time, staff had been functioning for nearly six months without any child care, and honestly, morale was quite low. I think that Good Beginnings has worked really hard to support staff and be as flexible as possible – but weeks and weeks of simultaneously parenting and working from home just takes a toll. There’s no way around it. I noticed such a difference in mood and energy level as soon as our kiddos were back in school. And then of course, the numbers in Washington County had been so good for so long, that we were feeling really optimistic in September and even into October about being able to cautiously continue with limited face-to-face programming through the fall. And then the surge happened. The difference was that this time, we were prepared to switch back. So organizationally, it felt much smoother and less disruptive. On a programming level, though, there’s a lot of sadness that we’ve had to discontinue some of that face-to-face work that we were so hopeful about.
Kristin: What precautions are you taking to keep clients, staff and the community safe?
Gretchen: Primarily, we are being very, very careful and deliberate about whether and how we provide in-person services. We expanded in-person services over the summer when the low case numbers in our region meant it was safe to meet with families outdoors for walks or masked backyard visits. We also offered weekly Stroller Walks so that families had safe, distanced options for social connection. Earlier in the fall, we did develop systems for how Good Beginnings might offer limited in-person services safely indoors through the winter months – for example, baby carrier fittings by appointment only at the Nest. Among other things, we stocked up on PPE equipment to offer families and volunteers, and we also developed new health and safety screening protocols both for Nest visits and for volunteers meeting families. However, the surge in cases starting in October has really taken things out of our hands for the time being. The silver lining is that we are prepared this time, and I’m confident that we will be able to offer in-person options safely when the time is right.
Kristin: What are your fears entering into the winter season?
Gretchen: My biggest fear is probably related to those families for whom some form of in-person support really is essential. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to support them as much as we would under normal circumstances. Another related fear is actually that families won’t reach out and ask for help – a surprising number of postpartum families feel uncomfortable asking for help even in the best of times, because of the stigma or a sense that “other families” need the help more. So I worry about the current situation contributing to both of those reasons why people feel that they can’t, or shouldn’t, ask for help. When in reality there is still a lot that we have to offer. It looks different, yes, but there are a number of ways that we can still be a part of your postpartum support network, and every family still needs and deserves that help. I hope that message is still getting out there!
Kristin: Tell us about receiving the Emergency Technical Assistance grant and your plans/hopes with that.
Gretchen: We were so fortunate to get an eleventh-hour invitation to participate in this program. As I mentioned above, we’ve had to suddenly transition our programming to an all-remote model, which means thinking about technology, social media, and principles of remote audiovisual communication in ways that staff has never had to do before. And with higher stakes. At the same time, it represented an opportunity for us to build out a new option for families to access support going forward. So this technical assistance grant meant that we could really do this right, instead of in a harried and ad hoc way relying on frantic internet research! We’re getting high quality advice from someone who knows all the options and is steering us in directions that will make sense for our organization in the long term. It has also been a wonderful morale boost for staff to have an unexpected opportunity to learn and explore and expand their professional horizons in the midst of all this ‘crisis’ work. I’m really excited about emerging on the other end of this with a nice new set of tools in our toolkit that will hopefully mean that more families can get better support in the format that best meets their needs.
Kristin: How can people support Good Beginnings right now?
Gretchen: Even during the pandemic, families have been welcoming new babies into the world and needing support during this important, and often intense, phase of parenting. And babies will continue to be born this winter, and all through next year and the years after that. Families caring for new babies will always need support from their community. That is a constant. And our goal is to be constant as well – to always be there for families – both in the short term during this crisis and in the long term. So the biggest thing people can do for us is to stay the course with us and be consistent in their level of financial support, if they are in a position to do so. We are so grateful for the support we receive from the community and for our donors who are standing by us during the pandemic and helping us maintain financial stability.
Another really valuable form of support in the short term would be to volunteer with us! As I mentioned above, we have a sudden need now for volunteers with somewhat different skill sets and interests. So if you are a person for whom the traditional Postpartum Angel role was not very appealing, but who has the capacity to volunteer now, we would love to talk to you about the specific volunteering needs we have in the coming winter months. For example, weekly ‘door drops’ of meals, groceries, or other supplies. Or weekly phone calls with a postpartum parent to chat and be a lifeline to the outside world.