I am amazed, in awe, and inspired by the way many nonprofit leaders – many of whom are women – are leading their organizations through the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a special series about Nonprofit Executive Women who are living in the trenches, working to keep their nonprofit running, and doing critical work to continue to serve individuals and families during this crisis. I’m curious about their work and the people they’re serving, their biggest concerns, and how they are taking care of themselves and those around them. So, I asked!

Trena Roudebush, Development Director, Back on My Feet

Trena is a self-proclaimed information junkie and seeker of unique experiences and interesting conversations. No doubt a lot of that conversation and information gathering  is focused on COVID-19 and the impact it has on our homeless population. Trena is the Development Director of Back on My Feet, an organization that combats homelessness through the power of running, community support, as well as essential employment and housing resources. Trena is responsible for growing their community of corporate and individual supporters and advocates, along with sharing honest stories of members’ journeys.

Q.  Who are you serving and how are you serving them during this crisis?
A.  Back on My Feet serves men and women experiencing homelessness living in shelters and recovery houses, who are working toward quality employment and stable housing. Normally, our members, along with community volunteers, run or walk three mornings a week at 5:45 a.m. as a way of practicing discipline and goal setting, fostering community and building self-esteem. Additionally, members take part in workshops designed to help support their job search and develop life skills they’ll need in their work and independent living – resume writing, financial literacy, computer and interview skills and job search techniques. Given the limited access to technology in shelters, we often depend on partnerships with organizations like the Indianapolis Public Library to increase access.

As the U.S. began to see cases of COVID-19, we first limited the morning runs to our members and a few core volunteers, along with eliminating touching – huddling and high-fiving are regular behaviors we had to unlearn.

Many of our members and alumni (employed and housed) work in industries impacted by COVID-19 and have seen hours cut or jobs lost. Our short-term focus shifted to:

  1. Helping alumni who are housed from falling back into homelessness.
  2. Helping continue a sense of community and prevent feelings of isolation and anxiety that can have negative consequences for those with mental health and addiction issues.

We are using technology to stay connected. Our two program staff members, along with our dedicated volunteers, have made a routine of checking in at least daily via text, Facebook messenger, and other means to say hi, chit chat, and uncover needs that we can address. We’ve replaced our morning runs with daily Facebook posts asking members and volunteers to share their workouts, post something they’re grateful for, and occasionally simply a get-to-know-you-better question of the day. In place of our monthly celebrations where we recognize member achievements, we were able to do a Zoom call with volunteers at home and members gathered around devices.

Our program manager, Hannah, is working closely with employment partners to identify job openings and helping members and alumni pivot toward those roles, even if it’s a short-term stopgap. Fortunately, our team works closely with our facility partners (Wheeler Mission, Progress House, Pathway to Recovery, among others) in our regular routines, which has made adjusting and adapting on the fly much easier than it otherwise might have.

Q.  Have you added, changed, or deleted any services because of COVID-19?

Although some of our programming has taken a back seat temporarily, we’ve primarily changed how we interact with our members, volunteers, supporters, and community partners. This is much more labor-intensive and is likely to slow the pace at which we’re able to get members into quality jobs and stable housing, but we know this will pass and we’ll be able to slowly return to our normal rhythm of activities and engagements.

Personally, I found myself in a position I had not faced before: our largest fundraiser – responsible for as much as 20 percent of our annual budget – was scheduled for March 27. Less than 14 days before the 400-person breakfast was set to take place at the JW Marriott, it was apparent that we would have to cancel it. In just 10 days, we were able to reimagine the event as a virtual one – creating a small website, video content, bonus assets, and – miraculously, it seems – a way for each of our sponsor tables to have a private “table” (a Zoom room) where they could still engage with their guests verbally and visually before and after the recorded program. It was intense preparation, but it went off with minimal hiccups. Fortunately, the event will be replicated in other Back on My Feet markets that were also faced with event cancellations.

A positive effect of the stay-at-home mandate is that some of our members have additional time to invest in optional online self-led trainings provided by Accenture and other partners. This will allow them to be more prepared and more marketable when they’re able to resume their job searches and interviews.

Q.  What are your biggest concerns right now?
A.  My biggest concern is for the stability for our members who are employed and working toward independent living, and also our alumni who may be living precariously, facing reduced hours, furlough, or the elimination of their jobs. The fear and uncertainty of these times is risky for those in drug and alcohol recovery. Paired with isolation for those living alone and the risks of relapse compounds. Some Back on My Feet members and alumni lack coping skills or mentors that would otherwise help them navigate times like this. This is one of the reasons our community of volunteers and partners are so critical.  

Q.  How are you taking care of yourself, your staff and your clients?
A.  For our members (clients), the simple check-ins, Facebook prompts, and personal interactions seem to be the most valuable ways we can support them emotionally. For our staff, we are scheduling time to connect and check-in on work and personal happenings, and making sure we find things daily to celebrate our work and members’ lives.

Personally, having a high-stakes project that was more or less all-consuming  was helpful in avoiding information overload when it risked being most overwhelming. Coming out of the event, I’ll be intentional about setting and honoring work priorities, connecting with supporters in creative ways without having a fundraising objective, reading a book from my ever-growing pile, and I Facetime with friends.

Q. What is your biggest need right now and how can people support your organization?
A.  Besides financial support, our biggest need is technology – increasing access for members to apply for jobs online, consume online trainings, and more. Hand-me-down tablets or laptops can be distributed to our facility partners to be used by our members. When life returns to normal, we’ll need additional volunteers to run and walk with us, or who want to support our members by assisting with workshops. Hopefully in May we’ll be able to begin hosting our monthly All-Community evening runs, which bring together members, alumni, volunteers, and community partners. It’s a great chance to connect, but also creates the need for us to provide a light meal as members end up missing the meal served at their facility. We have opportunities available for groups to provide or sponsor the meal – hopefully we’ll be able to support some of the local restaurants who have been impacted by COVID-19, especially those that employ our members.

Q.  What are you reading, watching, listening to, or doing to get through this?
A.  I have two books going right now: “Winners and How They Succeed” and the thriller “Sara’s Game”. I recently finished Condoleezza Rice’s memoir “Extraordinary Ordinary People” and “Catch & Kill,” by Ronan Farrow. I was introduced to the “Crime Junkies” podcast – my dog Jake is very excited about this because it has meant longer walks for him. I’m a marathon runner, so continuing to train – even as races have been cancelled – has helped me feel a sense of normalcy, even if it no longer serves as a social outlet.

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