Restoring Community More Important Than Ever During COVID-19 Shutdown

How does an organization that exists to promote social connection and combat isolation & loneliness continue its work in a climate of mandated social distance?

It's a funny question, really. We have to appreciate the irony of our own existence in this interesting and difficult time, but staff and block leaders agree that this work is even more important now than it was previously, because of the need to isolate for the safety of our greater community.

Our platform has always been that social isolation and loneliness are detrimental to our personal and societal health. We go back time and again to the Holt-Lunstad study that shows loneliness is as bad for our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Because of this, we have been working alongside our community in developing, testing, and implementing ways to decrease isolation & loneliness for years, and our work stands on the shoulders of Community Renewal International, who have been doing this for a quarter of a century.

Although this crisis is difficult for many, it will ultimately serve a catalyst for the community restoration we’ve already been working on, and that healthy social connections will explode when shelter-in-place & social distancing guidelines are lifted.

Since our inception in Fall 2015, we've been working to help neighbors restore community through intentional relationships, offering support in being visible to, interacting with, and gathering neighbors. Neighbors know that social media and electronic versions of social connection are helpful, but that they are not adequate alone to build the kind of relationships we need to be connected, caring individuals.

Now that nearly all our connections have to be virtual, for many of us it has re-awakened a desire for face to face interactions. We are getting the opportunity to learn how much we need real, live, non-virtual connection for our social and emotional health.

For nearly five years, trained volunteers now numbering in the thousands (156 Block Leaders and 4,230 We Care. team) supported by a dedicated staff have laid important groundwork for our community’s social connectedness -- resulting in heightened resiliency and collective efficacy -- the benefits of which are being reaped now, during this difficult time for our community.

“Pfefferbombs’ research shows that communities bounce back better when there’s social capital. The great thing is, because we have been working on this as a community for years, we’re ahead of the curve,” said Block Leader Coordinator Zoe Loeser. “The network is already built, so now we as a staff are focused on supporting those neighbors, and providing resources and education to help them continue the important work of connecting and caring long-term.”

Here are a few of the ways we’re responding to COVID-19 operationally:

As our on-campus programming is significantly reduced, we are allocating some of our staff to partner organizations who are meeting more acute needs during this time (specifically, Community Market of Pott County and Shawnee Public Schools).

We are using our platform as a trusted community voice to maintain and distribute a comprehensive Pottawatomie County-specific Resource List that is updated and distributed widely online on a daily basis.

We’re working hard to connect constituents, organizations, and helpers so that the social capital exists to facilitate the movement of resources to the needs. We’re remaining flexible and creative in finding ways to provide comfort & hope to adults & children, such as sending out our We Care. Bear to work at Community Market.

Additionally, we have altered the way our programs are delivered, so that all may remain operational.

Youth Development Program Changes

For the students in our typically campus-based youth development programs, a new daily video series inspired by Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood is airing on YouTube. Produced by club leaders, the series In the Neighborhood released its twentieth episode this week. In each episode, leaders give students a window into their homes, yards, and life to learn one simple aspect of social / emotional health each day.

Neighboring Support Altered Block Leaders are meeting weekly (virtually, of course) to offer support, share resources, and encourage one another as neighborhoods have become more active than they’ve been in decades as people are staying home, and the front line of friendly care has moved to neighborhoods. We are also holding online trainings for the We Care. Team to inform & educate on the topics of loneliness and isolation, and how to combat it. The final episode of the series will air next Friday; find Community Renewal on Facebook for more info.

“Our experience organizationally is not unlike that of other nonprofits and businesses -- we are having to put a lot of thought and effort into pivoting how our services are delivered to keep this movement going,” said Community Renewal’s Executive Director Brandon Dyer. “I am really excited at what our staff and volunteers have been able to roll out in such a short period of time to keep connection alive and well.”

The day will come when we will be safely able to reconnect with people we care about, mask-free and without a 6-foot buffer. As we were before and will be after, we're here to help neighbors restore community through intentional relationships, and we’re going to keep doing just that.