Home Donors, Volunteers Organizations Charity In The Time Of COVID – The Boca Raton Observer

Charity In The Time Of COVID – The Boca Raton Observer

34 min read

Keep calm and carry on. 

That slogan for World War II Britain comes to mind when considering the nonprofits coping with the challenges of this pandemic. 

Resilience, flexibility and leadership have helped these organizations continue to meet the changing needs of the communities they serve, including extremely vulnerable populations most impacted by COVID-19. With a cascade of canceled fundraising events and closures amid safety concerns for staff, volunteers and clients, a nimble response to the crisis and its economic fallout was key to mitigating the disruption of operations.

Despite the uncertainty about the economy going forward and questions about how long the pandemic will continue, supporters and donors have rallied to their causes. 

“Most donors plan to maintain – or even increase – the amount they donate to charity this year,” according to FidelityCharitable.org. “Support from donors is needed to sustain nonprofits at any time, but it is particularly critical in times of crisis. Our survey found good news for the nonprofit sector: A quarter of donors plan to increase their donations in response to COVID-19, while 54 percent plan to maintain their giving levels.” 

An added stimulus to charitable giving comes from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, which received bipartisan support and was signed into law March 27, providing, among other relief aid, tax incentives for charitable deductions for both individuals and corporations this year. 

To find out how charities are adapting during this devastating year, we spoke with eight South Florida nonprofits. Here’s what they had to say.

Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum

Boca Raton

Right now, we’re living through history in the making. And the Boca Raton Historical Society & Museum (BRHS&M) is “Curating COVID-19” with a campaign of the same name, asking residents to send in stories, photographs, videos and drawings reflecting what it was like in Boca Raton this summer for its “Letters to the Future” project. Submissions will go into the archive and be taken out for an exhibit sometime down the road.

BRHS&M has been in a unique position this year, says Executive Director Mary Csar. The museum had already been closed for renovation and the installation of new permanent exhibits. Due to the pandemic, offsite tours have been suspended. 

“We’re busy planning for the new museum, trying to create new tours and education programs, trying to make that come alive,” Csar says. 

The museum hopes to reopen in the spring with its first temporary exhibit, planned before the pandemic, on the history of Boca Raton’s first responders: the police and fire departments. However, uncertainty surrounds the society’s biggest fundraising bash, the Boca Bacchanal, which takes place in March.

“We just don’t know if people will feel comfortable standing close together, eating and drinking,” she says. “And we don’t know what spaces will be open.” 

Csar adds: “We’ll try to do some smaller events in 2021, and the summer, which is usually a quiet time for us, may be busy.” 

The pandemic has inspired ingenuity to problem solve and maintain organizational functions, she says.

“Like everybody else, we increased our social media, and we are not going to stop that afterward. We’ve all gotten more creative. It’s part and parcel of what we’ll do in the future.”

JARC Florida

Boca Raton

JARC Florida, the Jewish Association for Residential Care, provides an array of residential, vocational and recreational programs and services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Boca Raton nonprofit serves nearly 200 adults in its group homes and independent living arrangements.

Shutdowns in March placed a great burden on participating families, says JARC CEO Jeffrey Zirulnick. Its day program closed, its group homes were mandated to follow state restrictions for long-term care facilities and the job placement program with local businesses was shuttered.

“As soon as we closed down, we went right into full-scale how to address the pandemic and its impact,” he says. “How do we serve our population, keep everyone safe and continue to provide services?” 

The organization began devising extensive protocols for staff and clients, instituted a full-scale testing program, procured PPE (personal protective equipment) and kept client groups separated.

“We did everything to prevent any spread should someone come in contact with the virus outside,” Zirulnick says.

After that, activities were phased back in. But, for workers with disabilities, finding jobs is difficult when unemployment is high. About 50 percent of individuals in JARC’s Community Works program have gone back to work to some extent.

Luckily, JARC’s annual gala, a major fundraising event, went as scheduled in March before social distancing guidelines were set. Smaller events have gone virtual, and the annual golf tournament has been pushed from November to April.

“We had golf in the fall and the gala in the spring. That helped us with financial support,” says Zirulnick. “We’re trying to be creative, develop programs and reach out to supporters who are loyal to JARC.”

Although he expects JARC to have an operational deficit this year, he feels fortunate that the organization was able to secure PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) funding through the CARES Act, which allowed them to retain all staff.

“The staff has really done an outstanding job in meeting the needs of our clients, and my board has been very supportive,” Zirulnick says. “We’re told by many of the support coordinators that serve as a liaison between the state and us with our clients that we’re ahead of the curve.”

Big Dog Ranch Rescue

Loxahatchee Groves

Humans aren’t the only ones feeling the effects of the pandemic. Animals – and the shelters that care for them – have suffered, too. 

Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee Groves had to postpone or cancel the fundraisers that keep it running, resulting in staff layoffs, reduced salaries and campus closures, says Lauree Simmons, founder and president of the no-kill shelter.

“All in all we lost about $1.6 million in revenue,” she says. “We dug into our reserves.”

Deemed an essential business, the organization was able to continue its work saving dogs and get through the summer thanks to donations from generous supporters, says Simmons. Protocols were put in place to limit visitors and social distance. No one could come to the facility without an approved application and an appointment.  

The good news is that dog adoptions are up about 25 percent thanks to people now working from home and feeling like they have time to care for a pet. And, of the 250 dogs sent to foster homes during the closures, 65 percent were adopted, she says.

But there’s bad news, too: As the pandemic has dragged on, people undergoing financial hardship can’t afford to feed their pets. Big Dog Ranch Rescue has given out thousands of pounds of dog food so people can keep their pets.

The Wine, Women and Shoes fundraiser – which usually raises $1.2 million for the shelter – was originally scheduled for March but is now planned for this month. It’ll take place over the course of two days to help with social distancing. The 12th annual Winter Bark Bash will continue as planned next month.

“We’re very hopeful that all will go back to normal soon and people will come out and support us,” says Simmons. “All 501c3s are vital. Donate, donate, donate.” 



Since many people stayed in town this summer instead of returning north, it was an unusually busy time for JAFCO, says Janet Epstein, director of fundraising and special events. A variety of virtual fundraisers served as a link between donors and the Sunrise nonprofit, which offers services for foster care, adoption, family preservation and developmental disability programs.

“Our donors want to stay connected to us, and we want to stay connected to them,” she says. “It’s a nice way for them to do something different one evening, see some happy faces, do some good in the world and make a donation.”

Still, JAFCO anticipates a loss of $1 million or more because of canceled events and reduced contract revenues.

“We’re doing what we can to mitigate that loss,” Epstein says.

The organization’s signature event, the In My Shoes Luncheon, which was held in October, was a hybrid virtual and in-person event. The 10th annual fundraiser featured luncheons at private homes with however many guests each host felt comfortable accommodating. 

The Jewish Children’s Village, considered an essential business, thrived without a case of COVID-19, and Epstein reports that 80 percent of employees are now back to work.

However, the pandemic has undoubtedly affected everyone’s mental health, she says: “We’re all living through it.”

At Eagle’s Haven – JAFCO’s wellness center in Coral Springs servicing the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School community – classes in mindfulness, meditation, yoga and other wellness programs are offered to the public online. 

Moving cautiously forward, JAFCO will hold an in-person gathering, a black-tie gala, in January. It will be held outside with 200 guests (instead of 800) following social distancing guidelines.

Palm Health Foundation

West Palm Beach

Building strong community partnerships is one of the ways the Palm Health Foundation (PHF) advocates for health equity for Palm Beach County residents. In response to the pandemic, the foundation established the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Fund to give small grants directly to residents struggling to pay rent, access food, receive medical treatment and more. 

The fund was created in March, says Andy McAusland, director of grants and evaluation, when the organization began thinking about how to respond to the pandemic. PHF’s Rapid Response Team, a coalition of community partners and the Palm Beach Atlantic Volunteer Nursing Corps, used software to gather 1,000 stories about COVID-19’s impact on local residents, especially in cities within PHF’s Healthier Together initiative: Glades, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Lake Worth, West Palm Beach and Jupiter.

“We could tell all those things we thought were going to be issues were exact issues for people,” McAusland says. “Their work hours were cut. They were panicked about how to handle school and working from home. Some people were sick with COVID-19 and unable to work. 

“When we collected 50 stories, it was pretty clear there is a moral imperative to do something more than read stories and filter that information to community leaders. Some stories were so gut wrenching that we had to act. That’s what started the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Fund.”

The fund channeled money to seven small community agencies that have their finger on the pulse of their neighborhoods. 

“Because they are neighborhood organizations, they’ll understand best how to help,” he says.

One of those organizations is Pathways to Prosperity, a small Boynton Beach nonprofit with close ties to St. John Missionary Baptist Church.

“They are seeing people at their most vulnerable on a daily basis,” says McAusland.

Another is the EJS Project, a Delray Beach nonprofit that serves teens in and around the city.

“Both have deep ties to their local communities,” he says. 

So far, about $220,000 has been dispersed. Distributing the money to small grassroots organizations has not only helped individuals but has aided in strengthening the fiber of communities.

“That kind of community strength is really what’s going to get people through the pandemic,” McAusland says.

He adds: “We’re in this for long haul. This is not a temporary crisis like a hurricane – but a life-altering event. The plan going forward is how to make communities stronger and more resilient to handle challenges that come with ground-shifting events that we may well see more of.”

Kids In Distress

Fort Lauderdale

As the president and CEO of Kids in Distress (KID), Mark Dhooge doesn’t believe in hands-off leadership, especially in times like these.

“It’s important for leadership to be in the trenches with the team,” he says. 

Based in Fort Lauderdale, the nationally accredited agency is dedicated to the prevention of child abuse, the preservation of the family and the treatment of abused and neglected children.

What set KID apart in the crisis was the expertise and tenure of its 300 staff members, a significant technology backbone and a level of trust in leadership that allowed services to quickly continue on a virtual basis, Dhooge says.

“Communication was really strong at the outset. We’re seeing much more continuity in our communication with all families we serve and with our staff.”

When KID preschools and afterschool programs closed in March, training for the foster care program, which supports between 160 and 180 foster homes, went virtual the first week. A weekly Wednesday call kept team members, foster parents and board members in touch.

A robust family-strengthening team has seen an increase in referrals of families impacted by the pandemic as well as increased cases of domestic violence and substance abuse, says Dhooge. Conversely, child abuse reports are down.

“I don’t believe that’s an indication of fewer kids being abused. There are fewer eyes on those kids. They’re isolated at home. When you have an escalation in domestic violence or substance abuse, there is a parallel increase in child abuse.”

As schools reopen, there will likely be more reported incidents of child abuse and children going into foster care.

“We’ve geared up capacity over the last six months just in case we see that spike,” he says.

Signature events, like the Duck Fest Derby, have gone virtual, while its event with the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show has been postponed.

“What’s wonderful is that many of our supporters still stayed on board,” Dhooge says. 

Groups attached to the mission, such as the Charity Guild of Fort Lauderdale, have also donated the cost of fundraiser tickets for canceled events, he says: “Ninety percent of our supporters are on board with that.” 

Meanwhile, two full-time event planners transitioned to grant writing and have raised $500,000 over the last few months.

Boca Raton Regional Hospital Foundation

Boca Raton

When the pandemic hit, the fundraising team of the Boca Raton Regional Hospital quickly shifted its focus to supporting the hospital’s COVID response, says Mark Larkin, foundation president.

Whereas the development team would normally be holding face-to-face meetings with donors, they were instead working the phones, trying to track down donor connections to PPE.

“We had a great response from our donor base,” he says.

While gifts to the foundation’s capital campaign kept coming in, “our campaign is going to take us longer than we thought, so we were OK with that,” Larkin says. “It won’t be at our specific targets this year, simply because we couldn’t sit down and talk to people face-to-face.”

However, donations haven’t dropped significantly, he notes. About two-thirds of donations come from older, wealthier individuals seeking to make substantial investments.

“People are still giving, and part of that is because market investments continue to do OK,” he says. “Most people are making regular pledge payments. We haven’t seen any disruptions in that, nothing beyond what normally would happen.”

The remaining one-third of donations comes from a different demographic, which usually contributes via annual gifts.

“Those individuals, our ticket buyers, may donate $1,000 or $100,” Larkin says. “They are typically younger and in a group that are still working and still earning income and still may be greatly affected by the whole economic environment. That segment, yes, we are seeing some decline, not a huge amount.”

The foundation’s signature Go Pink Luncheon for breast cancer awareness and research was transformed into a month-long series of virtual fundraising initiatives. It raised as much money as last year, he says.

“We’re on track to meet our goal of $1 million, and we don’t have the expenses.”

Larkin adds: “It’s all about being flexible and creative. People are living their lives from home right now, but they still want to be involved in their community and give to things that are important to them.”

Supporting community organizations on the frontlines of the pandemic is vital, particularly those that focus on mental health, he says.

“It’s so important that the community continue to look at how they can support their friends and neighbors.”

Boca Helping Hands

Boca Raton

In the eye of the storm since the pandemic began, Boca Helping Hands has taken 2,000 new families under its wing, says Executive Director Greg Hazle. The social services organization, which provides food as well as medical and financial assistance to those in need, also has educational and job training programs.

The major change during the pandemic has been in the way food is distributed. 

“We used to have a congregant meal every day as part of our hot meal program,” says Hazle. “All food operations have been converted to drive-through operations.”

Hot meals are available six days a week at four drive-through locations via nonprofit partners in Boca Raton and Boynton Beach and the newly opened Lantana site.

Pantry bags are also available for qualifying Palm Beach County residents.

“With long lines of cars snaking through the facilities, it has changed what volunteers do,” he says. “It has required us to implement social distancing and other safety measures to make sure the processes are safe.” 

The other significant impact has been on the volunteer base, the backbone of the organization. The majority of volunteers, who are older and at high-risk for COVID-19, had to stop working. 

“It’s been a bit of a challenge to replace them,” he says.

Other programs, such as job training classes, have gone online.

“The good thing is we’ve been able to maintain a full range of services,” Hazle says. “And we’re learning some lessons – some new technology. Having gone through almost a year in this mode, I think we are prepared for 2021 if we have to do the same things.”

The organization doesn’t have many fundraising events throughout the year, but its annual Monopoly event went virtual in May and was relatively successful – but not as much as past in-person events, Hazle says.

However, Boca Helping Hands has received a continuous flow of donations, he says: “What we have seen is the community recognizing the role we are playing in this crisis and wanting to find a way to participate.” 

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