Lessons in Resilience is a blog and webcast series we created to share inspirational stories from our clients with the nonprofit community. You will learn of their ingenuity, flexibility, and most of all, their resilience throughout the pandemic.

Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana (VOA SELA) is perhaps best known for serving marginalized and vulnerable people across 16 parishes in Louisiana; however, they are also a “first call” connection point for anyone in the community looking for services. Celebrating their 125th Anniversary this year, VOA SELA has a rich history of staying true to their mission to reach and uplift all people, and this served them well during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, their resilience story includes connecting clients through telehealth, “repackaging” their existing food program for new distribution points, and a statewide collaboration on contact tracing that will possibly extend into new case management services going forward.

The Pivot

“There are opportunities that are revealed during challenges,” said Voris Vigee, President/CEO. “Through the pandemic, we found ways to help that we might not have otherwise.” One of the challenges that many organizations have faced during the pandemic is how to provide services remotely. The staff at VOA SELA were able to make existing services available via tele-health telephonically, thereby removing barriers due to lack of transportation. This hybrid model has worked well, and they plan to continue using it after the pandemic, if allowed by funders.

Another critical need was to continue the distribution of food through VOA SELA’s Fresh Food Factor program. Prior to the pandemic, the program provided 14,000 meals per day on-site at area schools. The team wanted to continue to feed families and provide foods that families could heat at home. They began packing food into two-week bundles for easy pickup in school parking lots and other community feeding sites. They have since expanded their service offerings and are now co-packing foods for area brands to sell in stores. In fact, they have even begun working with national brands who are interested in co-packing services in other parts of the country. As schools have re-opened, VOA SELA continues providing breakfast, lunch, and snacks on-site through the Fresh Food Factor program.

One true pivot point from the pandemic came from a completely unexpected source. “Our biggest collaboration opportunity during the pandemic came in the form of contact tracing,” said Vigee. The Louisiana Department of Health, in partnership with United Way of Louisiana, had the responsibility for the state’s contact tracing program. VOA SELA provided resource coordination services for those who have tested positive for COVID-19. For example, once a person was identified as testing positive, VOA SELA made sure all their needs were met whether by arranging for prescriptions to be delivered, finding a place to quarantine, or scheduling food deliveries. Expanding their normal service area, VOA SELA had the statewide contract and handled over 28,000 cases in the first nine months by hiring local people who were familiar with the area to work remotely and help provide these much-needed resources. Going forward, VOA SELA in partnership with its two sister affiliates will continue to provide community resource coordination across the state to help people in all regions for as long as they are needed. “We hope to increase awareness of services available in these areas by hiring community case workers to provide coordination and connection to the right resources in their community,” Vigee continued.

The Lesson

When asked what lessons they might share with others, Vigee indicated there were two: Have faith in God’s grace and be an active listener. She shared that it is important to know that you are capable and able to meet the client needs if you work together as one team. The key to that teamwork is a deep culture of becoming an active listener in your community.

“Active listening gives us the opportunity to think creatively and think differently,” said Vigee. VOA SELA encourages everyone on their staff to listen through constant conversation and connection helping to define not only the need, but also their response to it. Active listening may take the form of regular team meetings, directors checking in personally with staff, and pulse check surveys. In addition, surveys are sent to stakeholders, to board members, and the people they serve. During the pandemic, Zoom calls were added to keep in touch from a distance, but the VOA SELA leadership message is clear that the door is always open, and everyone’s voice is heard.

As they mark their 125th year of service, VOA SELA invites the community to learn more about the organization and to show support at their annual Reach for the Stars Breakfast, a virtual event that will be held on May 6, 2021. Visit www.voasela.org/virtual-event.

If your organization has a story to tell and you would like us to feature it in our Lessons in Resilience blog, please email Michele Buckingham, Chief Marketing Officer, LaPorte CPAs & Business Advisors. We would love to highlight your lessons learned so that others can benefit from your valuable experiences.