When a medical condition led to Lori Martin losing her job, her fiance, Rodney Campbell, who is disabled and collects Supplemental Security Income, was unable to keep up with payments on their house in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Soon enough, the couple, along with Martin's two children, 12-year-old James and 7-year-old Christiana, became homeless just as COVID-19 cases began appearing across the country and fear of an outbreak reached the public.
Moving back to Frederick County, where Martin is originally from and many of her family members still live, the family's prospects appeared grim until a relative pointed them in the direction of the Religious Coalition of Frederick, which runs the Alan P. Linton Jr. Emergency Shelter.
"She told us what we needed to do and then within just a few days of being back in Frederick we were housed by them and they started helping us out," Martin said. "It’s been about a month."
But behind the scenes, Nick Brown, the executive director of the coalition, knew he had to act fast to stave off a potential disaster. While the shelter has a maximum capacity of about 90 beds, it's an open space with no room for social distancing, meaning an infection could spread rapidly within the enclosed space, he said. Ideally, Brown wanted to limit the number of individuals at the shelter somewhere closer to 40 or 50.
In addition, the coalition found its services increasingly in demand as the virus continued to spread and gradually stricter emergency orders took effect to stem the spread.
"We had in our current program three families in our emergency family program, so we were already looking for a place to put those folks to keep them safe," Brown said. "We also had folks who were popping up who had been struggling to maintain some level of continuity by staying in hotels, but found themselves unable to keep up as their income sources began to dry up due to businesses closing and people losing their jobs. So we were looking at a larger need across a longer timeline."
The solution came during a conference call between several nonprofit service groups and six area funding agencies roughly two weeks ago. Chris Colville, executive director of the YMCA, listened to Brown outline his agency's needs and quickly realized the YMCA could help.
"I kind of had this 'A-ha!' moment where I said, 'Hey, we’ve got this great facility at Camp West Mar, we should partner up and figure out how do we get your families up there logistically and then determine how we can go about providing for their needs," Colville said.
Brown accepted and the group of funders, made up of the Ausherman Family Foundation, the United Way, the Delaplaine Foundation, the Community Foundation of Frederick County, the Helen J. Serini Foundation, the Kahlert Foundation and the Woman’s Giving Circle, offered to fund operations at the camp through at least June 7 with part of the more than $250,000 it raised for local service agencies in his first round of fundraising.
Working tirelessly, volunteers from the YMCA and the Religious Coalition prepared the camp to begin taking in families, including separating living spaces within the cabins, cleaning and sanitizing the grounds and setting up volunteers to work in the mess hall. In about a week the groups had accomplished an undertaking that would have taken months under ordinary circumstances, Brown said.
By Friday, the first four families, consisting of five adults and five children, moved to the camp facility in Sabillasville, including Campbell, Martin and her children. Over the next few weeks, Brown plans to house as many as 50 individuals at the camp through the worst of the pandemic.
"It’s actually turned out to be an even bigger blessing, because I’ve seen firsthand my family members who are out there, in their own homes, but they’re struggling for the basic things, and, it turns out, with us being in this situation right now, we don’t have to go out and fight people for toilet paper … we don’t have to struggle like some other people who are out there, right now," Martin said as she and her family sat at a picnic table at the camp Friday.
Christiana and James also enjoyed the camp facility, which includes hiking paths, a small lake and plenty of activities designed to keep children entertained. Shortly after moving in, James found one of the cabins particularly well-stocked.
"They’ve got a cabin down there with all sorts of different activities, like, they’ve got a Wii in there for us to play," he said, listing some of the games available with the video game console.
The layout and original purpose of the camp as a facility designed to entertain children was also appreciated by Jessica Batchelder, who also moved to the site Friday with her 2-year-old daughter, Madison.
"It’s awesome to be here, somewhere safe, and somewhere where I can keep my kid safe and there’s a lot of fun things to do out here," Batchelder said, smiling as she watched Madison bounce a bright yellow basketball back and forth with a Religious Coalition volunteer. "Honestly, we'd be out on the street if it wasn’t for the Religious Coalition."
The family shelter was just one of several initiatives supported by the group of local funding agencies, said Leigh Adams, the executive director of the Ausherman Family Foundation. While the United Way has been focused on raising funds, the Community Foundation is accepting grant applications from nonprofits struggling to keep up with the needs of those hit hardest by the outbreak, Adams said.
Nonprofits have also stepped up, such as the Asian American Center of Frederick gathering volunteers to sew cloth face masks and the YMCA undertaking the daunting task of receiving bulk supply shipments purchased by the funding groups and distributing them to other nonprofits.
"There’s just been emails going back and forth on this with messages like, 'I just got thermometers, who needs thermometers?' And it’s really just been amazing to watch and so inspiring," Adams said. "Beautiful things have been happening all with the same goal of making sure Frederick’s most vulnerable population is being taken care of."