Upper Valley Strong: A Daybreak Interview

Huge thanks to Rob Gurwitt and Daybreak for performing this interview and providing the content to Upper Valley Strong. Read the original document here.

It’s been over a month since Upper Valley Strong took shape again. Originally formed in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the group brings together nonprofit, business, and municipal leaders from around the region to coordinate aid and steer resources where they’re needed. 

It’s up and running, preparing for real need and putting dollars into various efforts like child care, feeding seniors, and helping local organizations adapt to these times. The dire medical emergency we all feared in March hasn’t materialized, but the economic emergency the Upper Valley faces is becoming clearer by the day. Daybreak spoke with three of its members: 

— Nicole Coleman, senior community health partnership coordinator at DHMC, who is part of a team from D-H’s population health division that’s helping to staff the effort; she co-chairs the communications committee, along with COVER director Bill Neukomm.

— Angie Raymond Leduc, community health coordinator at DHMC, who co-chairs UV Strong’s childcare committee, along with former Haven director Sara Kobylenski.

— And Tom Roberts, the outgoing executive director of Vital Communities, who co-chairs UV Strong’s finance committee, along with Greg Norman, community health improvement director at DHMC.

Could you quickly describe Upper Valley Strong and how it’s structured?

Nicole Coleman:  Upper Valley Strong was officially reactivated on March 13 in response to the pandemic. The purpose of the group is, in times of emergency, to be a convenor and a place for partnership and collaboration to happen among all the nonprofits.

Over the last month it’s been putting together a leadership team, a steering committee of maybe 15 people from prominent nonprofits. That group is led by Andrew Winter, who runs Twin Pines Housing Trust, and Barbara Farnsworth, the manager of community health improvement at DHMC, and meets weekly.

It’s also got over 80 representatives from municipalities, health care systems, other nonprofits, and regional planning groups, and that group meets in weekly calls for updates on VT and NH activities, and then spends time talking about what Upper Valley Strong is working on. They meet a couple of times a week, so they can respond quickly to needs as they come up.

We’ve organized into a variety of committees with certain areas of focus—including child care, transportation, support for older adults, and family resources. Each committee sets its own priorities, but a lot is gathering resources and making sure Upper Valley Strong is a good source for accurate information on what’s available. So, for instance, a lot of the food shelves have had to change how they operate, so we’ve collected that information and created a “Food Access” page that includes information by town. And then some food shelves were running low on food, so Willing Hands stepped in with financial support from Upper Valley Strong to expand their delivery routes and make sure that shelves stay stocked.

And how does funding work?

Tom Roberts: The committees talk together, and then come to the finance committee with the needs they’ve identified. So, for instance, LISTEN came in because their ability to provide meals has shifted dramatically, so we were able to help them continue providing meals and especially to help the area’s senior centers. Right now, we’re thinking about small businesses and how to help them.

We try to be as agile as we can, so that we can move quickly and get dollars out the door where there are needs. Things are changing quickly, and there are different funds around all trying to respond, so what does Upper Valley Strong do that’s different? Donors know that when they give money to the Haven or LISTEN or Willing Hands, they have a clear sense of how they’ll be responding to Covid. Where Upper Valley Strong can be helpful is, because we’re working and collaborating with many different agencies, the committees can come in and say, Here’s a proposal for three different senior centers and here’s what they can use. So we’re able to help all three. Or there’s a nursing group that needs forehead thermometers, and that’s fantastic, there’s no doubt we’ll need forehead thermometers in the Upper Valley.

DHMC’s community health department is playing a big role this time around. How did that come about?

Angie Raymond Leduc: Well, we’re all community organizers. It’s what we do for a living: We organize people around public health issues. So we were reassigned to help Upper Valley Strong to support those nonprofits. It’s saying, “We have staff who can put time toward this and allow you to help your own organizations thrive.” They’re the boots on the ground doing it all the time, so it’s giving them the organizing and administrative piece behind the scenes so they can focus on their own priorities.

So while I’ve got you, Angie, where do things stand with child care needs right now?

Angie:  We’re in both a response mode and a wait-and-see mode. A D-H survey came up with 400 children of employees needing child care—but this was anticipated need: We’ve all been waiting for a surge on our health care system, and anticipating that workers in high demand would result in a need for emergency child care. The committee got several weeks of funding for “Operation UV Child Care,” which uses FitKids Childcare, at the River Valley Club, so that families can call with what they need and the staff can give personal support to individual families and their needs. They’re getting calls and emails, but it’s minimal use right now. But this is the first week we’re really pushing the information out about it, and that help-line is where we will get information about what the needs are: things like transportation or special needs.

It seems pretty clear that the dire circumstances we were all dreading a few weeks ago haven’t materialized, at least not yet. How is Upper Valley Strong thinking about all this?

Tom Roberts: As a colleague of mine said, there are really three different emergencies going on. We’ve got the public health emergency that started this. Then there’s a severe economic disruption that, because we managed to do social distancing, ended up hitting here before a severe public health emergency did. And then there are vulnerable people in our community who are impacted by the social distancing and the economic disruption.

The power of Upper Valley Strong is in the collaboration and cooperation. That was true after Irene, and it’s true now. That’s what makes it dynamic. A bunch of folks getting together to think about this and think about it long-term. One example: When we’re talking about town mutual aid groups going neighborhood to neighborhood, they need to make sure they’re doing that in a way that’s healthy, wearing masks, etc. And we have an expert at Dartmouth-Hitchcock who can advise those groups if they need it.

This is the second in a series of interviews with locals trying to navigate the Covid pandemic. The first was with Dr. Michael Lyons of White River Family Practice, and you’ll find that here.