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Hands on Hartford Development Director Kate Shafer and Director of CQI, Staff Development & Support Janet Bermudez spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about how the organization has thrived and evolved throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

NAN PRICE: The pandemic has been challenging in so many ways, especially for those who needs resources provided by Hands On Hartford. How has your organization evolved to meet the community’s needs?

JANET BERMUDEZ: We knew we had to stay open and continue to provide services. One of the major changes that happened overnight was we moved our community meals day program from 45 Church Street, where it operated for more than 40 years, to our 55 Bartholomew Avenue home. Our food pantry went from a full shopping model to pre-bagged groceries, but we were still providing the groceries.

That was probably one of the biggest pivots we had to do to keep that service in place for our folks who depend on not just the meals, but access to restrooms and cell phone charging areas, and the ability to touch base with staff about different needs. So, that was really critical for us. And we knew we needed to keep our doors open. We just had to find new ways to serve people.

NAN: Tell us about the community involvement.

KATE SHAFER: Many of our volunteers, both in our meals program and in the pantry, are seniors. Early in the pandemic, a lot of them were unable to volunteer for health reasons. Many didn’t want to be in public space with other people. Their doctors were telling them to stay home. And many volunteers were folks who were coming into Hartford for work and suddenly found themselves working from home, making it hard to come to us to volunteer. So, at the same time as we had a huge increase in the number of people who were turning to us to us for help, we had a huge drop in the number of volunteers.

But in terms of food and financial donations, with individuals, faith groups, businesses, foundations, and family foundations, we saw a major increase in the number of folks who wanted to be involved in supporting our work financially—even just individual donors. I think we doubled or tripled the number of people who were supporting us in 2020.

A lot of folks were at home looking at news footage of people standing in line to get food. There was a lot going on that helped raise awareness. And we tried to get the word ourselves too, because we needed so much more support. We had to increase our staff hours to handle it because we didn’t have the volunteers.

It was a challenging time, but it was also very moving. It was touching, encouraging, and inspiring to see the way the community pulled together around this need.

NAN: Did any new initiatives develop during that time?

JANET: At the height of the pandemic we started our Greater Hartford outreach team, which we formed through a collaboration with two community partners, Wheeler Clinic and Connecticut Harm Reduction Alliance. We knew there was a need in the community for more outreach workers to have boots on the ground and actually canvas the streets not just in the city of Hartford, but surrounding towns as well. We adjusted our hours because we recognized there was a gap in our system with outreach workers going out during nontraditional business hours, so we changed our hours to fill that gap.

One of our team members, Stephanie Boyce, was also instrumental in forming a partnership with Hartford HealthCare late last year. They bring services on site a couple times a month—and not just medical services. For example, they have an attorney and a social worker.

Because the program is here, folks know and trust our staff and now that we’ve created this partnership with Hartford HealthCare, they feel like they can also trust Hartford HealthCare and receive services while they’re here. It’s a win-win.

It can be hard for some folks to feel comfortable stepping into a medical office or a clinic, especially if they’ve been sleeping outside and haven’t been able to change their clothing for a week or two. The fact that these services are here and this is a place where people feel welcomed makes them more apt to be seen for whatever issue they’re experiencing.

NAN: Tell us about the Culinary Collaborative and your shared kitchen.

KATE: The Culinary Collaborative is a partnership that includes Hands On Hartford, Forge City Works, reSET, Breakfast Lunch & Dinner, Parkville Market, Community Solutions (Swift Factory), and Knox. The mission is to work together toward a common goal of establishing equitable pathways for food businesses to grow and thrive in Hartford. The Collaborative provides support and business development assistance to beginning culinary businesses to help them launch and grow successfully, and also support each other.

Related to that, we teamed up with reSET to create a free Food Incubator program that supports local entrepreneurs who want to expand their food-based businesses. It’s great for the folks who are using the kitchen. It’s great for us because of our commitment to building community in Hartford.

Having folks in our shared-used kitchen began well before the pandemic. Right now, we’re up about 40 members, all local entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses who need a place where they use the space on an hourly basis until they’ve built their business up enough that they can move into their own space. We’ve had a number of folks who started here and are now running their own businesses in their own space.

We also received some funding from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), as well as some private funding, which helps subsidize some of our members who are from Hartford so we can make this opportunity available to more people. It’s wonderful to be helping people create their own businesses and income and helping our community thrive in that way as well. It’s really exciting stuff.

NAN: What’s next?

KATE: There are a lot of great things happening here in the Parkville neighborhood and especially this area of Bartholomew Avenue. We’re thrilled to be in the middle of it and see all the things that are developing. We’re working with some partners in the area, hoping to develop more affordable housing here and put more support into place in terms of helping folks with employment and job readiness.

The other thing we’re really excited about is, for everybody who misses the Café at Fifty-Five, which we had to close during the pandemic, we’re finalizing plans for an innovative new restaurant model that will be open to folks from all walks of life where they can gather together, regardless of ability to pay, and enjoy some good-quality dining. More to come on that in the coming weeks.

NAN: How can people become involved with Hands On Hartford?

KATE: We’re always looking for volunteers and there are plenty of ways to get involved. We’re hoping to do more large group things outdoors this spring and summer. For folks who don’t want physically get involved, you can host a food drive in your neighborhood or at your business. Our pantry thrives on donations from the public and we’re always grateful to accept them.

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