A Vashon community lifeline that disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars in pandemic relief was running out of money as 2020 drew to a close.
But now, the Vashon COVID Relief Fund, a project of VashonBePrepared, has been replenished and will be able to continue its work in this new year.
Throughout the pandemic, Vashon BePrepared, working with the Emergency Operations Center, has been making hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursements to partner agencies and organizations serving at-risk communities on Vashon with food, housing relief and business recovery assistance. The fund also pays for almost all the costs of the all-volunteer Medical Reserve Corps COVID testing site on Vashon.
The relief fund was originally seeded by $200,000 from anonymous donations by two Vashon households in the early weeks of the pandemic. Total donations to the fund stood at $360,000 by year’s end, thanks to contributions from approximately 400 islanders.
However, as 2020 rolled on, VashonBePrepared’s leadership knew that the community’s crushing needs — for bags of groceries, meal distribution to families and seniors, mental/behavioral health and advocacy, rent relief and much more — were quickly depleting the fund’s coffers.
“Right from the beginning, we knew we really had two emergencies — the disease and the resulting economic devastation,” said Rick Wallace, Manager of the Vashon EOC. “Now the two emergencies were yet again coming together with a vengeance. Cases were spiking and island families were in severe economic pain. We were pumping as much money out as we could to augment the work of our partners, but the well was going to run dry despite all the community contributions.”
That’s where VashonBePrepared’s president, Vicky de Monterey Richoux, stepped up her game.
Late last year, she led the organization through the process of obtaining $205,000 through King County’s Office of Emergency Management (KCOEM) to recoup many of the relief fund’s 2020 payouts.
This funding loop effectively puts the bulk of donations from islanders to the COVID Relief Fund to work twice, much as a one-to-one matching grant would.
It also means, of course, that the COVID Relief Fund will be able to continue to distribute money in 2021.
In the early days of the pandemic, VashonBePrepared decided to use a transparent process of documenting the relief work by working with its partners to identify needs, and then paying invoices from the partners to cover the costs of meeting those needs — an innovative approach compared to the usual process of making bulk relief grants.
That documentation decision, managed by de Monterey Richoux, helped forge a connection with KCOEM that eased the way for the replenishment funding.
A list of local social service organizations and agencies have relieved reimbursements from the COVID Relief Fund, a few on a monthly basis and others as funds allowed and needs were indicated.
Recipients in 2020 included Vashon Food Bank, Vashon’s Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, St. John Vianney Church’s Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Vashon Island School district nutrition program, Vashon Youth & Family Services, the DOVE project, the Senior Center, Vashon Island Growers Association and the Chamber of Commerce.
The pandemic has stressed all these entities to serve Vashon.
“Since last March, the need for help with housing, food, and PSE bills has been constant,” said John McCoy, who works with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. “We expect this to continue until most of us are vaccinated, businesses are able to operate normally and workers are fully re-employed.”
The Society has quadrupled its financial assistance program this year, providing $110,000 in charity to islanders — an amount made possible through donations from parishioners, local businesses, islanders and, of course, VashonBePrepared’s relief fund, which alone reimbursed about a tenth of the Society’s expenses in 2020.
Hilary Emmer, of Vashon’s Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness, also detailed that organization’s greatly increased needs in 2020, both in terms of providing rent assistance to islanders as well the expansion of its community meals program. In the past 10 months, she said, IFCH paid out more than $226,000 in rent assistance to an average of 31 families per month.
The IFCH rent fund, Emmer added, has been able to raise $262,000 in that same time period, with 20 percent of the money coming from VashonBePrepared. The COVID Relief Fund also reimbursed an additional amount spent by IFCH for the meals program.
“The Vashon community as a whole has always seemed to come forward and help when there is a need,” she said. “Whether they have donated directly to each nonprofit through VashonBePrepared, it is islanders helping islanders.”
Likewise, the Senior Center’s food program has seen exponential growth and change during the pandemic — providing 7000 low or no-cost home-delivered meals, three days each week, from March to December 2020.
Catherine Swearingen, the center’s executive director, said she had recently been told by an island caregiver that the Senior Center had provided the only good meal of the day for many island elders.
“Without funding from VashonBePrepared, I don’t know that we could have kept the program going,” Swearingen said.
That help can now continue, thanks to de Monterey Richoux’s successful efforts to infuse new cash into the Relief Fund coffers.
“There are a bunch of heroes in the Relief Fund story, but Vicky belongs in the pantheon,” said Wallace.
De Monterey Richoux, who began to live on Vashon part-time in 2002 and moved here full-time nine years ago, has had a long career in public and private accounting, tech support and systems consulting for manufacturers and distributors. She’s been involved with VashonBePrepared since 2013 in a variety of roles.
One of the ways her professional expertise was put to the test, during the pandemic, was in creating order in the Relief Fund’s itemized reimbursement system to local organizations.
“The early months of activation had been somewhat chaotic, involving a lot of new volunteers, a lot of new processes, and some communication challenges, with all of us working remotely,” she said. “So the billing documentation was a bit jumbled and dispersed.”
She lauded VashonBePepared new volunteer treasurer, Deborah Diamond, and bookkeeper, Laura Griffith, for their help in getting systems in place.
And while de Monterey Richoux dug in to assemble documentation into tidy spreadsheets and supervise the payout of funds to local agencies, she also learned an alphabet soup’s worth of acronyms for agencies that might be helpful in terms of replenishing the relief fund.
She discovered the trickiness and tedium of making a $12,000 application to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) while working with an expert from the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division (WA EMD).
Eventually, FEMA required that the application be redirected to it again from VIFR (Vashon Island Fire and Rescue, the government agency that activities the EOC.) Another FEMA application from VIFR, to support the work of the EOC’s Medical Reserve Corps (MRC), is also pending.
But de Monterey Richoux isn’t expecting to see those funds come through right away.
“Based on the years of delay in FEMA’s processing of public assistance applications after Hurricane Katrina, we don’t expect to receive the funds anytime soon,” she said.
But finally, later in the year, de Monterey Richoux found the key to replenishing the Relief Fund, while working with yet another government agency, KCOEM (King County’s Office of Emergency Management).
That agency, working closely with de Monterey Richoux, drew on CARES Act funding and its own pending grants from FEMA, to reimburse VashonBePrepared for earlier payouts of its Relief Fund.
Voila. She, along with other leaders at VashonBePrepared, had done it.
De Monterey Richoux credited a county employee, Nicole Johnson, with being especially helpful in securing the funds.
“She is a hero to us,” she said. “People often feel that Vashon is neglected by the county, but I’m here to say they are stepping up for us in terms of what they can do.”
Now de Monterey Richoux is eager to continue to step up for VashonBePrepared.
The best aspect of her work with the organization, she said, is feeling that she is doing her part to help island families that have been most severely impacted by the pandemic.
“It feels great to have some small role in reducing the suffering of some of our most vulnerable neighbors during this pandemic,” she said. “Having a sense of purpose from the work has helped me navigate the many constraints and adaptations we’ve all experienced in 2020.”
To donate to VashonBePrepared’s COVID Relief Fund, visit VashonBePrepared.org/Donate.