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Community Renewal takes on bond-building from afar

Vicky O. Misa
Community Renewal’s We Care. Bear mascot works its second volunteer shift in the last few weeks at Community Market of Pottawatomie County.

During weeks of a shelter-at-home directive to combat spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, one local nonprofit is facing an especially specific hurdle — how to boost social connections while the world has nearly shut down all personal interaction.

Community Renewal of Pottawatomie County is proving it's up to the challenge.

“We have to appreciate the irony of our own existence in this interesting and difficult time,“ Community Renewal Communications Officer Erica Bass said. “But staff and block leaders agree that this work is even more important now than it was previously, because of the need to isolate for the safety of our greater community.”

Community Renewal of Pottawatomie County’s platform has always been that social isolation and loneliness are detrimental to personal and societal health, she said.

“We go back time and again to the Holt-Lunstad study that shows loneliness is as bad for our physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” Bass said. “Because of this, we have been working alongside our community in developing, testing and implementing ways to decrease isolation and loneliness for years, and our work stands on the shoulders of Community Renewal International, which has been doing this for a quarter of a century.”

Although the crisis is difficult for many, Bass said it will ultimately be a catalyst for the community restoration Community Renewal has already been working on — and that healthy social connections will explode when shelter-in-place and social distancing guidelines are lifted.

“For years, we’ve advocated that social media and electronic versions of social connection are helpful, but that they are not adequate alone to build the kind of relationships we need to be connected, caring individuals,” Bass said.

Now, nearly all connections have to be virtual, and for many it has re-awakened a desire for face-to-face interactions, she said.

“We are getting the opportunity to learn how much we need real, live, non-virtual connection for our social and emotional health,” Bass said.

Since its inception in Fall 2015, Community Renewal has been working to help neighbors restore community through intentional relationships, offering support in being visible to, interacting with and gathering neighbors.

For nearly five years, trained volunteers — now numbering in the thousands (156 Block Leaders and 4,230 We Care. team supported by staff) — have laid important groundwork for the community’s social connectedness, resulting in heightened resiliency and collective efficacy — the benefits of which are being reaped now, during this difficult time for the community, she said.

“Pfefferbombs’ research shows that communities bounce back better when there’s social capital. The great thing is, because we have been working on this as a community for years, we’re ahead of the curve,” Block Leader Coordinator Zoe Loeser said. “The network is already built, so now we, as a staff, are focused on supporting those neighbors and providing resources and education to help them continue the important work of connecting and caring long-term.”

Some ways Community Renewal is responding to COVID-19 operationally are:

• As its on-campus programming is significantly reduced, the nonprofit is allocating some of its staff to partner organizations that are meeting more acute needs during this time — specifically, Community Market of Pottawatomie County and Shawnee Public Schools.

• Community Renewal is using its platform to maintain and distribute a comprehensive Pottawatomie County-specific Resource List that is updated and distributed widely online on a daily basis.

• The nonprofit is working to connect constituents, organizations and helpers so the social capital exists to facilitate the movement of resources to the needs.

• The organization is remaining flexible and creative in finding ways to provide comfort and hope to adults and children, such as sending out its We Care. Bear to work at the local food bank.

• Community renewal has altered the way its programs are delivered, so that all may remain operational:

— For the students in its typically campus-based youth development programs, a new daily video series inspired by Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood is airing on YouTube. Produced by club leaders, the series In the Neighborhood released its twentieth episode this week. In each episode, leaders give students a window into their homes, yards and life to learn one simple aspect of social/emotional health each day.

— Block Leaders are meeting online each week to offer support, share resources and encourage one another as neighborhoods have become more active than they’ve been in decades as people are staying home, and the front line of friendly care has moved to neighborhoods.

— Community Renewal is also holding online trainings for the We Care. Team to inform and educate on the topics of loneliness and isolation, and how to combat it. The final episode of the series will air next Friday.

For more information, visit Community Renewal's page on Facebook.

“Our experience organizationally is not unlike that of other nonprofits and businesses; we are having to put a lot of thought and effort into pivoting how our services are delivered to keep this movement going,” Community Renewal’s Executive Director Brandon Dyer said. “I am really excited at what our staff and volunteers have been able to roll out in such a short period of time to keep connection alive and well.”

He said the day will come when we will be safely able to reconnect with people we care about, mask-free and without a six-foot buffer.

“As we were before, and will be after, Community Renewal is here to help neighbors restore community through intentional relationships and we’re going to keep doing just that,” he said.