When Michelle Fries thinks about her Panhandle communities’ needs during the pandemic, she remembers people asking for housing or utility assistance, for food and for emotional support.
“It’s been humbling to me because you don’t realize what your neighbors might be going through,” said Fries, the office manager and disaster coordinator for Behavior Health Region 1.
In many cases, she saw outreach workers provide crisis counseling or connect people to resources because of the Nebraska Strong Recovery Project.
“They’ve been able to do such good work, it’s amazing to me,” Fries said.
The Nebraska Strong project in 2020 received $6.7 million in new federal grants to focus on COVID-19 and is scheduled to continue through December.
The project is a collaboration of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center, the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency and the state’s six behavioral health regions.
Nebraska Strong originally formed after the state’s 2019 flooding.
The pandemic turned out to be a disaster unlike any other, said Aaron Adams, network program specialist at DHHS’s division of behavioral health.
“Usually, a disaster affects very specific families or locations, but this was everyone, including the outreach workers themselves,” Adams said. “The scope was much broader than other situations.”
The project’s outreach workers, he said, “really rose to the challenge to find ways, whether virtually or in person, to support people.”
Adams said he was continually impressed by each regional team’s ability to be flexible and creative to adapt to the needs they saw.
COVID-19 is a polarizing topic, he said, and communities needed to be approached according to, for example, how open local businesses were to masked outreach workers and to displaying information about coping with the pandemic.
In many cases, outreach workers said, the common ground was a focus on stress and anxiety, whatever the source. They talked about self-care and looking out for neighbors in need.
Sometimes, the need was emotional support, such as when outreach workers wrote on windows or held parades outside long-term care facilities, where residents were isolated early in the pandemic. Later, outreach workers led activities inside.
Other times, it was practical support. Fries recalled getting a referral from a hotline for someone who was struggling with a frozen water tank for their cattle. An outreach worker who lives on a ranch himself was able to work with other community members to use heaters to get the water unfrozen.
If a hotline referred someone with food needs, sometimes an outreach worker picked up a box from the local food bank and delivered it along with printed materials, Fries said. The food bank was a partner in providing Nebraska Strong Recovery Project information in its distributions.
The Nebraska Strong project distributes a lot of printed materials, whether business cards, postcards, posters, flyers, brochures or children’s coloring pages. They advertise the Nebraska Family Helpline (1-888-866-8660) and the Rural Response Hotline (1-800-464-0258). Both statewide hotlines will continue to offer support to Nebraskans after the grant supporting the Nebraska Strong Recovery Project ends on December 26.
Fries said she thought the project’s most successful efforts were random acts of kindness days in each of the region’s 11 counties. Those included gift baskets for school staff, donut giveaways by a local church, a hospital appreciation week and, in September, a “celebrate recovery” month with purple pinwheels placed in yards.
Adams said Region I also creatively partnered with a chain of gas stations to place public service messages on billboards.
Susanna Batterman, a Bridgeport businesswoman who serves as the Region 1 governing board chair, praised the outreach workers for being so active and visible despite the miles between towns in the Panhandle.
She said she appreciates that the outreach workers have gotten into co-ops and feed stores and places where farmers congregate for coffee. The ag sector is hurting, she said, and many farmers and ranchers can use the support and resources outreach workers offer.
“They’re not afraid to get out,” she said of the outreach workers. “They’re very relatable, willing to just sit down and listen. They just bring a human touch to the situation.”