How Lexington nonprofits are responding to the community’s needs with coronavirus

Rockbridge Area Relief Association set up a drive-thru


Rafay Hassan, ‘22, volunteers with Rockbridge Area Relief Association. Photo by Hannah Denham.

Avalon Pernell

Local nonprofits in the Lexington and Rockbridge area are evolving how they serve the community to meet the needs of residents affected by the coronavirus.

“One of our biggest issues is that we had to change our entire operations on the spin of a dime,” said Jen Handy, the Rockbridge Area Relief Association’s executive director.

RARA has moved to a drive-thru model for regular pantry hours.

Handy said in a phone interview that most of RARA’s volunteers were college students and retirees. But the coronavirus caused many of those students to return home. And many retirees are now staying at home for safety reasons.

“It’s a change, but the community has really stepped up,” she said. “In some ways it’s hard because everyone in this community wanted to volunteer right away.”

But Handy is still worried that the situation will later take a toll on the HelpLine – an emergency financial assistance program for partial payments of utilities, rent, and gas.

“Utility companies are not allowed to issue cutoffs or late fees right now,” she said. “But we’ve been trying to convince people to pay what they can because it is still going to accrue.”

Handy said they are already gearing up for a surge in demand for the HelpLine but are hoping to meet families’ food needs now before it reaches that point.

Yet Handy said she remains thankful for already having the relationships in place to continue to serve local residents and preserve their dignity.

“It is hard to reach everyone, but if we can reach for example all of our churches or fire departments, we can spread the word,” she said. “That is the value of having collaborations in place before an emergency.”

On March 23, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, closed all public schools for the remainder of the academic year.

Washington and Lee’s Campus Kitchen program supports elementary and preschool students in all three school systems who receive free or reduced lunches by giving out backpacks filled with food every Friday.

“On a normal week this year during the school year, we were sending 771 backpacks a week,” Ryan Brink, an alum who is now the Campus Kitchen coordinator, said in a phone interview. “This week we sent home close to 1200.”

Schools are now offering free meals to all students under 18. Brink said that they are now offering the backpacks to all students who come for those meals.

But with most students gone, he now relies on the help of Washington and Lee faculty and staff.

“We are limiting our volunteer shifts to four people at a time,” Brink said. “Normally we host five to twenty people for two hours on a Wednesday afternoon.”