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After two years in crisis mode, El Paso nonprofits struggle to find enough volunteers

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As the COVID-19 pandemic drags into its fifth month in the Borderland, some groups that rely on volunteers are seeing a drop in participation despite a growing need for help.

El Paso nonprofits say they are struggling for volunteer help after more than two years on near-permanent crisis footing — first caring for the hundreds of thousands of migrants who came to the border in 2018 and 2019, then comforting and caring for a community shattered by a terrorist attack on Aug. 3 that killed 23, then providing food and other assistance to people whose lives were upended by the pandemic.

Organizations like The Salvation Army of El Paso, United Way of El Paso County and El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank have had fluctuations in their volunteer workforce since mid-March.

For The Salvation Army, the number of volunteers dropped dramatically when stay-at-home orders were implemented.

Brenda Sanchez, volunteer and special events coordinator for The Salvation Army of El Paso, said there was a sharp decline of volunteers when the pandemic first reached the city. The organization provides meals to people in need, operates a homeless shelter and aids communities during disasters, among other services.

Brenda Sanchez, volunteer coordinator at The Salvation Army, says her organization needs more volunteers. Many El Paso nonprofits say the same. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Prior to COVID-19, Sanchez said about 25 volunteers were available daily to assist with the various services the organization provides, including the critical task of preparing meals.

“Then it was nobody coming in (to volunteer), so that’s when I was very worried and just trying to see who could help come in because we really did need help in the kitchen,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez said several factors led to the drop.

To comply with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing and safety protocols, The Salvation Army decreased the number of volunteers that could safely help.  Sanchez said some volunteers who had young children or grandchildren stopped signing up.

In June, the number of volunteers climbed to about eight, about a third of normal, she said. But with the number of cases of COVID-19 spiking again in the last few weeks, Sanchez said there has been another large drop.

“I received phone calls of people that were going to come, but then cancelled because they were going to wait until things (COVID-19 cases) calm down,” Sanchez said. “Now we are just hoping that we can find volunteers that are willing to come. We need people to serve.”

Food bank loses National Guard aid

For the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, which has been providing food to about 8,000 families a day since March 16, the number of volunteers has also dropped significantly.

Miranda Chapman, who has been serving as the food bank’s volunteer coordinator, said 20 volunteer spots are available for the community at the main food bank every morning and every afternoon.

Recently, they have been able to fill about 14 spots and on some days as few as four spots are filled, she said.

The food bank also has been relying on partnerships with the National Guard, Shift Smart, Americorps, and Texas Workforce Solutions to tackle the gargantuan task of packaging and distributing food to thousands of families each day.

Susan Goodell, CEO of the food bank, said the assistance from the National Guard ended and she is concerned the other partnerships will also end when funding for those programs runs out.

“There is a very large need for volunteers,” Goodell said. “I just encourage people that are in a position to volunteer to please come out and help the food bank feed the 8,000 families that come through our door each day.”

Making adjustments

Without the National Guard, Goodell said the food bank has been experimenting with different ways to make up for the manpower shortfall.

Typically when families drive up to receive food, volunteers load the trunk.

“We have been experimenting this week and I’m looking out the window right now watching people load their own cars. So that’s a little bit slower,” Goodell said. “They are all wearing masks and it’s a little bit slower, but that might be a good solution for us.”

Goodell said they are also having to shift manpower to varying tasks like breaking down the food that arrives in bulk.

“Imagine a 2,000-pound bag of potatoes or beets or apples or onions. All of that needs to be broken down into 10- or 20-pound bags to feed a family and we need help with repackaging food as well as helping people get the food who are in the lines,” Goodell said. She added that the food also needs to be packaged for emergency boxes that are being delivered to vulnerable families that cannot leave home or drive.

Three main areas have seen a decline in the volunteer force, Goodell said. Senior citizens, children and business teams have dropped in participation.

Goodell said a lot of reasons may be keeping those groups from volunteering.

Seniors are more vulnerable if they contract the virus; high school and college students who would have participated in group volunteer efforts are not in classes; and with some businesses still closed, fewer teams from various businesses signing up, she said.

Nora Aviles, the food bank’s human resources and administration director, said fear of exposure to COVID-19, and hot summer temperatures may be contributing to the drop.

Emotional tolls from two years in crisis mode

Before Aviles joined the food bank in November, she worked with The Salvation Army for six years and helped coordinate disaster relief efforts during the migrant humanitarian crisis in 2018-19 and following the Aug. 3 terror attack at Walmart that killed 23.

She said she had been operating in disaster mode and transitioned to work for the food bank in hopes of stepping away from communitywide crisis response.

Then in March, the community was engulfed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m just like, oh my gosh, here we are again and we don’t know when it’s going to end,” Aviles said. “So it is just draining on both the community, the volunteers, the employees, and everybody’s heart is in the right place. It’s just, how do I push through doing this again? I think that that’s what we are seeing in our community.”

Aviles said the food bank is estimating they may need to continue to provide the emergency food to families for the next 18 to 24 months.

If more El Pasoans volunteered, the food bank staff, which has been working nonstop, might be able to have a break as well, Aviles said.

Life hasn’t gone back to normal

United Way President and CEO Deborah Zuloaga said she has seen positive changes with the way some organizations have adjusted during the pandemic, but she’s also seeing challenges.

Martha Hernandez, left, and Gabriel Jimenez, both volunteers at The Salvation Army, help distribute meals to people in need on July 8. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“We are starting to see a little bit of fatigue, so I think that’s part of it, and when I say fatigue it’s not necessarily in volunteerism, but I think we are recognizing that we thought life would go back (to normal),” Zuloaga said. “I think all of us optimistically thought we were going back to the way we were January 1st, but what we are finding is that’s not happening.”

United Way, a nonprofit that works in a coalition of charitable organizations to pool efforts in fundraising and support, also helps volunteers connect with organizations through its Volunteer El Paso website.

Angelica Mata Lindstrom, United Way’s volunteer coordinator, said she has noticed a shift in needs by area nonprofits — many are asking for donated items rather than volunteer labor.

“A lot of the needs are based around COVID- 19,” Lindstorm said. Organizations have requested items to address food insecurity, food distribution, and donations or supplies that revolve around meal support.

Now is the time

Zuloaga said many organizations have had to make adjustments to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVIS-19 guidelines. She recommends volunteers make sure those protocols are in place.

Zuloaga said if people are reluctant to volunteer at an organization, checking in on vulnerable neighbors or helping someone with a chore like picking up groceries, yard work, or taking out trash bins also is a form of volunteerism.

“It doesn’t have to be a formal structured event, it can be caring for one another,” she said.

Volunteerism is giving personal time without any compensation, but Zuloaga said that during these times it’s OK to get an emotional boost in return.

“That’s one of the things we can really do to make ourselves feel good, and that’s not what it’s about, but in times like this we need to feel good,” Zuloaga said.

How to help

To see a list of organizations that either need supplies or volunteers, visit Volunteer El Paso.

To help El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank, visit the volunteer page to sign up.

For volunteer opportunities with The Salvation Army of El Paso, call and ask for volunteer coordinator Brenda Sanchez at (915) 544-9811.

Cover photo: Mike Bunnell, a volunteer at The Salvation Army, brings meals to the outdoor distribution site on East Paisano Drive on July 8. Bunnell was previously a prison ministry volunteer, but that program was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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