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Grantees Share Their COVID Experiences

A Letter from Executive Director Diana Spencer

Dear Colleagues & Friends,

When we asked grantees about their experience of COVID and what they’ve learned, letters full of stories, tips, and ideas flooded in. That’s a hallmark of McGowan grantees: They’re generous with their learnings. Christina Martin, a consultant for Kansas City’s After the Harvest (ATH) recommends collaboration. “Help each other out,” she writes. Michael Trout, executive director of strategy and development of Chicago’s Young Men’s Educational Network (YMEN), which supports students in the beleaguered North Lawndale neighborhood, agrees on this lesson, “We’ve found this a wonderful time of advancing collaborations with other nonprofits.”

Our grantees are also resilient, and that inspires us as a board.

One reason is that one of our guiding principles at the McGowan Fund is resilience. On the board and on staff, we try to lead with resilience—recognizing that we can recover from unexpected challenges or our own miscalculations. With resolve, we know we can develop new solutions, pivot when necessary, rebuild our resources, hone our understanding, and so can our grantees.

Resilience, imagination, and passion: That’s what we found in these letters. Here’s a sampling:


For After the Harvest, COVID has meant more: more semi-truckloads of fresh produce, more partners. “We are rescuing excess produce meant for schools and restaurants [that were] forced to close,” Martin writes. Funders have lent a helping hand. “With grants confirmed and/or received and a large commitment from a local philanthropist, ATH has raised its budget and has started contributing to a reserve fund.” Armor for a second wave.

Katy Hamilton, chief executive officer of the Center for Work Education and Employment (CWEE) in Denver, describes resilience this way, “Unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. For me this reality has been freeing in terms of enabling me to be bold, decisive, and action oriented.”

Imagine This

Located in the North Lawndale neighborhood, YMEN noted the fraying of community under the strict shelter-in-place rules Chicago’s mayor had levied. As the rules loosened up, YMEN turned to a black-owned barbershop that had been forced to close. Now YMEN is distributing $2,500 worth of haircut gift cards to fathers and other positive male role models in the neighborhood. Besides reinvigorating the community, “the barbershop will be able to build a new clientele with the increased traffic. It’s a win-win,” writes Trout.

When the COVID crisis hit, Chicago’s Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC), which teaches job skills to low-income adults, shut down its in-person and hands-on training. JARC adapted by using Zoom and other technologies. Meanwhile, several of JARC’s manufacturing partners began making items for essential workers, one of which was 3D-printed face shields. JARC jumped on it. “JARC has … invested in 3D printers to help us identify projects that trainees can work on. In the short-term, we expect to introduce this curriculum inside of our CNC (computer numerical control) program. In the long-term, we expect to be able to offer this as a stand-alone program,” President Regan Brewer reports.

During COVID, grant writer Sandra Snyder at the Diocese of Scranton has found the space to try new things. “The most obvious example is in the realm of virtual fundraising,” she writes. “I’ve loved being able to dream up responsive ways to keep people connected and engaged and bolster revenue in the process, and I believe the pandemic has pushed us into places where we previously may have only tiptoed.”

Passion for the Work and the Community

Asked what kept them going, nearly everyone said, “the mission.”

Development Specialist Xavier Hankins at Literacy KC, finds inspiration in “… the continued motivation of our students as they keep pushing forward. This motivation from our students and continuing to see their desire to learn is what has kept us going!”

From Gene Brady, chief executive officer of the Commission on Economic Opportunity in Wilkes-Barre, PA:

“All the new people that we are helping. We have seen 200,000 new people since the start of the pandemic.”

From Patrick Bittorf, advancement vice president at Christ the King Jesuit College Prep (CTK) in Chicago:

“What keeps us going during the COVID shutdown is what always keeps us going—our students. Our mission remains the same.” Online learning during the last three months of the school year were productive: “CTK students achieved between 97–100 percent attendance each day of online instruction. And, although not an ideal end to their high school experience, the CTK class of 2020 earned over $13 million in collective scholarships and aid as they made college decisions.”

From Development Director John Kearney, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation:

“What keeps me going in COVID-19 is the community work we get to do every day. … It is truly a blessing to wake up every day and work to advance educational equity in Kansas City.”

At BeyondHome, Arvado, CO, Executive Director Karen Allen is inspired “by the gratitude we receive from families when they send us sweet texts, emails, and handwritten notes expressing the assistance they have received from us, especially during COVID-19.”

Chief Executive Officer Natasha Kirsch at The Grooming Project, a program of Empowering the Parent to Empower the Child (EPEC), in Lee’s Summit, MO, has found inspiration and gratitude, both. “A few unlikely donors came forward and started helping us,” she reports. “They mobilized others to buy Chromebooks for all our students to learn remotely and raised enough money that every family in our program got an extra $500 each.” Meanwhile, the project has seen a terrific COVID-driven spike in demand for dog grooming. (Who knew?)

In fact, at YMEN, Trout is downright energized. “Personally, I have never worked harder,” he writes, “and I’m having the time of my life. Yes, people are hurting and struggling, but we have an amazing opportunity to fill in gaps, which is very exhilarating. I am currently working between 50 and 60 hours each week … and I am filled with joy at what YMEN is doing. In addition, with our expansion of the urban garden, we have been able to hire 45 youth this summer for a combination of virtual and hands-on engagement.”

For my colleagues and me here at the Fund, all of the comments we received were inspiring. Thank you—for your work, your resilience, your creativity, and your passion—even in this difficult era.


Diana Spencer