Written By: Robert Cocuzzo & Bruce A. Percelay | Photography By: Brian Sager

The Community Foundation for Nantucket strengthens the island’s safety net during its greatest time of need.

While the coronavirus has exposed vulnerabilities in the human body, the pandemic at large has revealed vulnerabilities within entire communities that have gone unseen and untreated for far too long. On Nantucket, no other organization has diagnosed this more precisely than the Community Foundation for Nantucket (CFN), which has served as a safety net for the island’s many nonprofits since 2005. “We witnessed needs expand exponentially, literally overnight,” said Margaretta Andrews, CFN’s longtime executive director. “The pandemic taught us that Nantucket is a highly vulnerable environment that’s not immune to the hardships that impact the mainland and the rest of the country.” Within days of the pandemic gripping the island and shuttering local businesses, Andrews and her team launched a multipronged rescue mission that continues to this day.

A little over a year later, CFN began analyzing the lessons learned about the needs of the island. The statistics are bewildering. Food insecurity exploded by 600 percent, with the number of families registered at the Nantucket Food Pantry growing by more than 650 since 2019. Likewise, the demand for rental assistance soared by a staggering 400 percent. “Electricity, oil and other fuel bills went unpaid,” explained Jeanne Miller, CFN’s program director. “Insurance policies lapsed. Car payments were missed. Physical health care needs went unattended. Mental health care demand and substance abuse grew steadily.” Indeed, other grim statistics emerged, as A Safe Place reported an increase in domestic violence and sexual abuse calls by 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

(Left to Right) Carlisle Jensen, CFN Development and Program Officer; Diana Harrison, CFN Office Manager; Margaretta Andrews, CFN Executive Director; Jeanne Miller, CFN Program Director.

“As sectors of the island economy closed or became restricted, jobs were lost in retail, construction, landscaping and restaurants,” described Geoff Verney, CFN’s board president. “All workers who could not work ‘virtually’ were affected. Income was lost that could not be made up for later in the season.” Meanwhile other segments of the island’s workforce not only lost their income, but were also ineligible for any federal assistance. As a last resort, the Immigration Resource Center became a financial life raft for many people working on Nantucket who could not receive a stimulus check from the government due to their citizenship status.

Addressing these daunting and complex challenges, CFN developed an innovative strategy that matched the generosity of its donors with emerging programs to meet the community’s needs in real time. On the food front, for instance, CFN established the Nantucket Fund for Emergency Relief – Food Initiative, which provided more than 15,000 meals by partnering with local restaurants that were reimbursed by CFN for meals they prepared for those in need. In total, CFN created eleven partnerships that targeted the emerging food crisis on the island, from championing the Food Pantry to delivering hot meals directly to seniors’ homes. The initiative was complemented by a CFN fund, which was created to support the partnership between Island Kitchen and the Nantucket Public Schools. Island Kitchen deployed its food trucks to help prepare breakfast and lunch for students who depended on the schools for those meals.

The lifeblood of these efforts was extraordinary donations. Immediately after establishing the Nantucket Fund for Emergency Relief with a $100,000 grant, CFN secured two matching grants of $250,000 from ReMain Nantucket and from an anonymous donor. Another $250,000 came in from the McCausland Foundation, which was specifically earmarked for community health. Donations snowballed throughout the summer and into the fall and winter. Within a year, $2.9 million had been raised by nearly five hundred donors, two hundred of whom had never given to CFN before. “These numbers were astonishing and beyond our wildest expectations,” said CFN Development Officer Carlisle Jensen. “In a typical year, the Nantucket Fund raises just over $500,000 through two hundred gifts.”

As quickly as the funds came in they were distributed. To date, $2.7 million has been distributed to thirty-five island organizations. Leading the grant-making effort, Jeanne Miller and her team followed a three-phase approach, beginning by targeting organizations that addressed critical health and human services, then supporting those nonprofits that provided essential community services by disinfecting their spaces and supplying PPE, and finally awarding operational grants to nonprofits that had been struggling to survive during the pandemic. From helping create a reimbursement program for therapists to treat patients for free through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to providing grants to the Immigration Resource Center to meet some of the basic needs of the community’s most vulnerable population, the three-phase approach brought dramatic relief to many families’ everyday lives.

Just last month, a widowed single mother of two teenage children had to be medevacked to Massachusetts General Hospital due to her battle with COVID-19. Though her condition gradually improved in Boston, doctors needed to keep her on the mainland until she fully recovered. Meanwhile back on Nantucket, the struggling mother’s rent was due. “Because of the Emergency Relief Fund’s generosity, Housing Nantucket was able to provide this family with full rent relief,” said Anne Kuszpa from Housing Nantucket. “I can’t tell you how relieved she sounded when we were able to tell her not to worry about her rent for the month and to just focus on her recovery.”

While CFN has plans to soon retire the Nantucket Fund for Emergency Relief and transition its efforts back to the Nantucket Fund, Andrews and her team insist that many unknown needs of the community that were exposed by the pandemic remain. “Families will need at least a full season of work to ‘return to normal,’” she said. “We expect food insecurity to persist and a surge of rental assistance requests this coming fall.” But through the Nantucket Fund, CFN will stay vigilant in meeting the needs of the community wherever they exist. “Nantucketers should be exceedingly proud of their enormously generous response to the pandemic, and we hope to see that support continue through donations to the Nantucket Fund,” concluded Andrews. “The Community Foundation is honored to continue to play a role supporting our island community in its time of need.”

To contribute to the Nantucket Fund, click here

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