Thanks to new sources of support, Bay Aging can continue offering free hot dinners from local restaurants to seniors and people with underlying health conditions —at least for now.

The service, called Helping Neighbors, launched in late April. But earlier this month, Bay Aging warned that funding for the program was at risk of being exhausted by June 20, and the organization is calling on each of the 10 counties it serves to consider using unallocated CARES Act funds to continue the service until the end of the year.

Initially, Helping Neighbors was supported with an allocation of Families First funds provided by the Administration for Community Living. When Bay Aging received the money, it was instructed to immediately launch programs to provide additional meals during the pandemic. So, Helping Neighbors was born with the mission of delivering dinner to allow vulnerable populations to stay in their homes as much as possible and for as long as possible.

“We could not project an end date for the stay-at-home order nor did we know how many people would sign up to receive meals so there was never a definitive time when the program would conclude,” said Bay Aging’s president and CEO, Kathy Vesley. 

Originally, Bay Aging anticipated scaling back and eventually eliminating the initiative as the program’s funds were exhausted. But before that happened, several counties contacted the organization asking about programs that they could allocate some of their CARES Act funding toward. Helping Neighbors seemed to be an ideal candidate. 

“This is a program we conceived to help address both the public health and economic hardships brought about from the COVID-19 pandemic. And after discussion with a few county administrators, we decided to request funding from all ten counties in our core service area and explore the other partnership opportunities as well,” said Vesley.

Currently, dinners are delivered to each participant on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which has Bay Aging buying about 1,400 restaurant meals per week for an average of $9 apiece. The organization has sent each county  a breakdown of how many of its residents are being served and the approximate restaurant tab for that county.

“Overall, the responses have been very positive. Many of the counties really appreciate the public health and economic benefits of the program, but most of the boards of supervisors have yet to take action on the funding request,” Vesley said. Richmond County is not among those who have taken action. 

When county administrator Morgan Quicke brought the issue before the board of supervisors at this month’s meeting, there was unanimous consent to immediately allocate $5,000 to keep the program in tact for county residents for at least another month while future funding is considered.

Quicke noted that Bay Aging is a long-time partner of the county when it comes to providing services for the elderly population, and given that working relationship and the looming deadline, the county felt it was prudent to act quickly.

An uncertain future

With regards to logistics, Helping Neighbors is on solid ground. Early on, it was challenging for Bay Aging to find restaurants that were open and willing to participate as many didn’t have the staff. But the organization has overcome that hurdle and established relationships with restaurants in every county. “We have also marshalled a tremendous group of volunteers who deliver these meals…Some people drive for miles between homes to make sure older adults receive meals,” Vesley said.

The organization’s most pressing challenge at this point is getting the money to keep the program going. 

Bay Aging isn’t just sitting back waiting for the counties to deliver funding. From the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the organization has made it a top priority to explore and pursue every potential funding source it can find, said Vesley. 

Still, if some counties cover the tab for their residents and others don’t, there’s a risk that Helping Neighbors will be cut where there’s no local government funding.

“That is probably what will end up happening but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. We will continue to operate the Helping Neighbors program for as long as we can and, in the counties that help with funding, for as long as the individual county’s allocation allows,” said Vesley.

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