Four Beloved Silicon Valley Nonprofits Are Redoubling Their Efforts During Covid-19 to Continue to Serve Their Communities

Maintaining momentum.

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  • Written by
    Jane Ganahl
  • Illustrated by
    Yuiko Sugino

The most venerable nonprofits in Silicon Valley have, in addition to decades of experience and a solid financial foundation, the ability to pivot during times of crisis. Never has that skill been needed more than in recent months, as COVID-19 has not only cost tens of thousands of lives and caused the misery of isolation for millions in the United States, but also decimated jobs and the stock market, which suffered its worst first quarter in history. The perfect storm has increased demand for charitable services even as their income has decreased.

San Francisco 49ers Academy

How are they managing? With ingenuity, optimism, determination, and sometimes even reinvention of purpose. We spoke with the directors of four Silicon Valley nonprofits—all of which take hands-on care of clients in need—to see how they’re faring during these unprecedented times.

“Well, it’s taking a lot of guesswork, a lot of pencil sharpening,” chuckles Diana Conti, executive director of PARCA (Partners and Advocates for Remarkable Children and Adults), which for seven decades has served those with developmental disabilities. “We’ve had to shift a lot of gears, and close two programs outright: our respite center and childcare program. But much of what we do continues as usual—though with major new precautions in place.”

In addition to its counseling and advocacy programs, PARCA operates group homes for adults with developmental disabilities—a scenario that could be challenging for social distancing. “We’ve had to deploy staff to have 24-hour rotations,” says Conti. “Residents are only allowed to enter the kitchen one at a time, they are not able to use the common space. They’re being as careful as they can.”

She draws a deep breath. “The best news is that none of our staff or clients have become infected.” She is also grateful for “great leadership at the state level that has enabled us to continue our work, even virtually.”

For example, she says, where it was state-mandated that support services needed to be done in person, PARCA has been granted a waiver to do counseling sessions by phone or video chat. “Right now it’s all about maintaining that vital connection,” she says.

One East Palo Alto nonprofit has had to take extraordinary steps to do just that.

Hope Services

“From my lens, it’s doubly complicated because we have to work extra hard to connect with the kids now that school is no longer in session,” says Michele Sharkey, executive director of the San Francisco 49ers Academy, which works with socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the Ravenswood School District. The Academy, which is embedded in the public schools, provides everything from advocacy to groceries to hygiene items for 140 students through 12th grade.

“The work doesn’t end, the needs are greater, and the pressure is on to bring in the resources to make it work,” Sharkey says, noting that East Palo Alto has been hit hard by the pandemic. “We do have a lot of families headed by home care workers, gardeners, hotel industry staff. Some are able to keep working, while others have lost their jobs.”

And for many EPA children, a lack of funds means a lack of connection. “Our kids are often left to fend for themselves,” says Sharkey. “So it takes extra effort to see to their needs. We are doing constant outreach, checking in with families.”

Thankfully, she says, their program pivot is mostly working. “They do trust our staff and will respond to them. That’s our secret sauce—our relationships. And I’m so deeply moved by how everyone on staff is rising to the occasion, connecting families to resources.”

Also serving families facing disaster is the venerable Ronald McDonald House Charities Bay Area, which has the additional major challenge of interfacing closely with the health-care world.

“We’re seeing the community respond like never before. It’s how we know we’re going to get through this.”

“The pandemic has been a game changer for us, because we serve families who are already in a medical crisis,” says CEO Laura Keegan Boudreau. “Hospitals are canceling on anyone who is not in a life-and-death situation. So we really are taking care of the sickest of the sick and families need us more than ever. It’s made us rethink all of our operations.”

Boudreau says the critical question became, “How do we continue to serve these families and take care of staff?”

One way was to put their family service support online, via videoconferencing. They also suspended their very popular volunteer training program. But much of what they do, says Boudreau, has to be done in person.

Ronald McDonald House

“We’ve got this amazing team delivering three meals a day to people who are sequestered in their room, and [we] still provide transportation for families to be with their kids in the hospital,” she says. “So far it’s working—we’ve had no coronavirus cases, thankfully.”

Also noticing a rise in demand because of the crisis is Charles “Chip” Huggins, president and CEO of Hope Services of San Jose, which aids 3,500 people with developmental disabilities and mental health conditions in six counties around the Bay Area. One of their many programs is known as Home Start, which helps parents of infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities.

“We served around 200 families in the month of March alone and that has increased by 20% in April,” says Huggins. “As the children are home with family members, it increases stress.”

Thankfully, he says, staff is able to utilize video calling to check in with their clients. “Our day programs and senior programs are shut down, but we’re in constant contact with those clients. About 85% is now online,” he says, noting that physical help is also available from a safe distance. “Clinicians are asking families what else they need—including food or diapers—which we can then have delivered.”

Like many nonprofits, Hope Services has seen an income slowdown despite the increased demand. “We operate three thrift stores in San Jose, Fremont, and Watsonville, and we’ve had to close them and lay off all retail workers, but we still have to pay rent,” says Huggins.

Hope’s other main fundraiser, originally scheduled for this June, was to be a big concert featuring two-time GRAMMY-nominated saxophonist Mindi Abair. “We’ve put it off until October 3,” says Huggins. “And we’re holding our breath that we get the green light!”

As for Ronald McDonald House’s fundraising, Boudreau sighs, “All our plans have gone out the window. Our annual golf tournament in June had to be canceled—maybe postponed until the fall. Based on our regular fundraising activities we’re looking at a shortfall of about $1.4 million this year.”

Thankfully, she says, their board is rising to the challenge. “They have taken it very seriously, and set a goal of raising half a million dollars by June, and then we’ll go out to the community looking for a match. We’re tightening our belts where we can, but there’s only so much you can do when there are basic needs to be met.”

PARCA is also scrambling to make up a deficit after having to cancel its annual spring Devil’s Slide Run, which features five different courses for runners. “Everything is based on guesswork,” says Conti. “We went around and around about it, and came up with October 17 as a new date. And it turns out the Pumpkin Festival is that date! In any case, I seriously doubt that an event of 600 people will be allowed by then. So we are exploring the possibility of a virtual event.”

The 49ers Academy will also take a serious hit if its fall event—Cocktails and Couture—can’t take place.

“We’ve already lost our presenting sponsor,” says Sharkey. “And if it can’t be done, it would mean a $200,000 deficit in our budget.”

Because of this, the Academy has launched a special COVID-19 Emergency Fund, which as of this writing has secured 70% of its $75,000 goal.

How can someone help—not just these four nonprofits, but others that serve vital needs in Silicon Valley? The obvious answer is to donate—and soon. If you are a year-end donor, consider moving up the date to now, when income is faltering and needs are growing. Or, in the case of Hope Services and PARCA, which operate thrift stores, donate your gently used goods. “But wait until we reopen for business!” says Huggins. “Hopefully that will be soon.”

“We can’t wait to be back to normal,” says Boudreau. “[Ronald McDonald House] feels like an entirely different place right now. But I’ve been so amazed by the positive attitudes around me; everyone really is in this together. I have not heard a single complaint about the adjustments everyone is having to make.”

And, she says, there is always reason to hope. “We’re seeing the community respond like never before. It’s how we know we’re going to get through this.”

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