“I am one of those compromised folks, and until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, I am very limited in my social interactions. I live well, though … I live even better now that Neighborhood Aid is in my life,” said a resident on the Mt. Lebanon Magazine Facebook Page. He explains that he’s used the service twice now for groceries, and received excellent service.
Neighborhood Aid launched in April 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mt. Lebanon Municipality, Dormont Borough and local elected officials (see list below) came together to create this program to help underserved, isolated and elderly constituents in our communities as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic.
“Our goal is to connect our residents with existing services,” says Commissioner Mindy Ranney, one of the Neighborhood Aid organizers. “For example, we aren’t going to open our own food bank, but we can find food banks in the area and share that information with residents that need it.”
In addition to pointing residents to the organizations that will help solve their problems—from unemployment, to food insecurity, to aging concerns—Neighborhood Aid has also developed a robust volunteer network to connect isolated and at-risk residents with essential items including groceries, prescriptions and masks.
To set up the program, organizers asked the managers in both municipalities for support. Each provided staff for a call center, public information resources and IT support. The website is equipped to handle most requests, but organizers also wanted to serve constituents with limited internet access, which is why the call center was a key component of the plan.
Sandy Kyper, Mt. Lebanon Recreation Department secretary and Bethany Bachman, Dormont community events and communications coordinator, take turns monitoring the Neighborhood Aid hotline (they are our “hotline heroes”), and then they either directly connect residents with services that can help them, or they match them with a community volunteer who can make a delivery.
Right now, there are 30 regular volunteers including the organizers, who also take volunteer jobs. Each volunteer received training via Zoom, which covered safety guidelines and program instructions. More than 100 applied in the first week—far more than the program could handle at the time, so many of them were referred to partner organizations like South Hills Interfaith Movement or the Salvation Army, and they remain on the contact list in case of increased future need.
When a call comes in for a resident who needs a delivery, Kyper or Bachman will post the job in Slack, a communication program, and volunteers can sign on and claim the task.
“We were super busy in the beginning. We got lots of food bank trips and grocery trips, but we also did a lot of sending people to different resources they can use,” says Bachman. “When it first started, we had lots of people who needed help with their unemployment benefits, which is dying down. Now, more of the calls are actual tasks [for our volunteers].”
Neighborhood Aid received 118 calls in its first month, April. Call volume has gone down steadily since then—May had 81, June had 42 and at the time this was written, July had 30.
“The call volume has gone down, but the people that need it REALLY need it,” says Bachman. For example, one of Neighborhood Aid’s regular callers is a resident with cancer who is recovering from surgery and must be isolated in his home. In another case, an elderly woman lost her job and her cupboards were bare. When the community volunteer arrived at her doorstep with food, she broke down in tears.
Sometimes the program also connects residents with permanent solutions. For example, after multiple calls with a resident who was obviously struggling to take care of himself, Neighborhood Aid referred him to the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging, so that he could start receiving the care he needs.
“We’re here for the short-term for COVID, but we want to get people set up in the long-term as best we can.” says Bachman.
Yet for many callers, all they really need is someone to talk to—and Neighborhood Aid has a solution for that as well. The Buddy Program connects residents with a dedicated community volunteer, who makes weekly calls to check in on their health and welfare, or just to simply have a chat.
“It’s really just about being a good neighbor,” says Ranney. “Some people were already isolated before COVID, but now there’s this extra level. We can tell that residents appreciate this service.”
The Buddy Program is just another way that Neighborhood Aid has adapted to the needs of the residents throughout the pandemic, and organizers suspect the program will continue to evolve over the coming months.
“We initially thought we would be responding to a lot of cases of COVID—people who are quarantining or seriously ill and trapped in their beds. But, fortunately, that was not the case at this point in time,” says Ranney. “That could still occur in the fall or winter, though. So we’ll keep the program open and the infrastructure in place to meet more residents’ needs if it turns out that way.”
Neighborhood Aid would not be possible without the help of:
- Keith McGill, Mt. Lebanon Municipal Manager and Ben Estell, Dormont Municipal Manager
- State Representative Dan Miller and staff
- Craig Grella and Mindy Ranney, Mt. Lebanon commissioners
- Jen Mazzocco and Joanna Bouldin, Dormont council members
- Bethany Bachman, Dormont Recreation Manager and Communications Coordinator
- Sandy Kyper, Mt. Lebanon Recreation Department Secretary
- Eric Milliron, Mt. Lebanon Economic Development Manager
- Laura Pace Lilley, Mt. Lebanon Public Information Officer
- Kate Abel, Dormont council member and Dormont CDC board member
Many thanks to these organizers and the numerous Neighborhood Aid resident volunteers who have made, and continue to make, grocery store runs, food bank deliveries, errands or a friendly phone call!