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In early 2020, LifeCare Alliance received a grant from the City of Columbus—Columbus Counts 2020 to help raise awareness among our clients about the importance of filling out the Census. To use this funding, we had to radically pivot when COVID-19 struck. Since our congregate dining centers closed on March 16, 2020, and are still not open, we had to think of a different way to reach the Hard-to-Count (HTC) populations that we normally serve through in-person dining and large events.

As a result of some of the new COVID-19 protocols, it took us some time to relaunch our congregate meal program and assess how to do it safely for all parties involved. Leah Bunck, MSW, Director of Congregate Dining at LifeCare Alliance, discussed the challenges of relaunching the program: “Many of our clients do not drive, which means we had to figure out the best way to bring the meals and programming to them. Partnering with senior apartment buildings throughout Franklin County has worked very well.”

In addition, converting our signature dining center, Carrie’s Cafe, into a drive-thru has worked as a great alternative for clients that can drive. Once we realized that we could do a “Grab-and-Go” model at senior residences as well as a restaurant-style drive-thru to continue to provide meals to our seniors who had previously attended our dining center events, we knew we could still make the Census education campaign a success.

Client enjoying Grab-and-Go Line

Above: Client enjoying Grab-and-Go line.

Instead of two large events as we had initially proposed when we applied for the funding, we held several “Grab-and-Go” events at local senior residences and a restaurant-style drive-thru at Carrie’s Cafe. All of the funding was still spent in the spirit of what we initially proposed (enhancement of the “Grab-and-Go” and drive-thru meal distributions such as music, desserts, games, prizes, signs, stickers, census flyers, etc.). Ultimately, these different models reached even more HTC populations, and these new ways of distributing meals to seniors are most importantly safe for our clients, who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

As a result of our new methods of delivering services, we distributed 2020 Census stickers on all of the boxed lunches that were served at the Grab-and-Go events throughout the months of July, August, and September and utilized a variety of signage to make sure that clients knew how to complete the Census and why it is so important. We also included a Census sticker on 2,500 produce boxes that were distributed all throughout Franklin County to low-income seniors. Census stickers were additionally placed on bags of pet food and fans distributed to low-income and/or homebound seniors.

The traditional client of a dining center participates for the food but also for the social aspect of the program. COVID-19 has really impacted clients’ quality of life and mental health since they have had to stay in their apartments and could no longer share a meal with their friends through our dining center program. This grant allowed us to offer clients a safe alternative to socializing while receiving nutritious meals. Thanks to this grant, clients have expressed how happy they are to be out of their apartments/ homes and participate in something that they know will be a high quality of safe service.

When we introduced the prize wheel and music, thanks to this funding, clients felt like they won the lottery! Participants loved spinning the prize wheel for a chance to win simple home items or treats. Staff were also able to remind them about the importance of the Census. They were able to celebrate those who already completed it and share more information with those who needed to still be counted.

Dining Center Coordinators with prize wheel.

Above: Dining Center Coordinators with prize wheel.

Over the course of the Grab-and-Go events and the drive-thru at Carrie’s Cafe, we learned that we may want to continue offering these types of services to seniors even when it is safe to go out again. Bunck shares that “the Grab-and-Go events have been very well-received by the communities they reach. Clients are happy and well-fed!” This also allowed our congregate dining program to partner with our social enterprise, L.A. Catering, which has been a mutually beneficial partnership since we began implementing these new models of meal delivery earlier this year. We plan to continue these events through October.

Thanks again to the City of Columbus for supporting our clients!

-By Crystal Kurzen, Grants Manager, LifeCare Alliance

Clients enjoying grab-and-go.

Above: Clients happy to see each other again at the Grab-and-Go event.