Nassau County non-for-profit officials stress need to prioritize mental health services

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Officials from some of Nassau County's non-for-profit organizations discussed how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted them over the past year. (Screenshot by Robert Pelaez)

Officials from some of Nassau County’s prominent non-for-profit organizations discussed the inequity of federal funding, the need to prioritize mental health services, and the ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic during a Blank Slate Media virtual event Thursday night.

The four panelists featured in the event were Regina Gil, the founder and executive director of the Gold Coast Arts Center, Paule T. Patcher, chief executive officer of Long Island Cares, Inc., Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of the Family and Children’s Association, and Rebecca Sanin, the president and CEO of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island.

All four panelists shared their initial reactions from March 13, 2020, the pandemic’s true beginning on Long Island. Whether it was concerns about their staff, the people their organizations serve, or a combination of both, the panelists collectively agreed that the scramble for local and federal resources was about to be an unprecedented one.

“Nobody could have imagined a public health emergency such as this one,” Sanin, whose organization also oversees the island’s Disaster Relief Coalition, said. “When this all first happened, I think most non-profit organizations weren’t really sure what universe they were walking into. I don’t think anyone imagined our lives would turn over in the way that they did so quickly.”

Reynolds, whose organization is one of Long Island’s largest health and human organizations with 340 staff members, 200 volunteers and more than 30 programs that help the underserved and the at-risk populations, said his immediate priority once the pandemic hit was the staff members. Of those 340 staff members, Reynolds said, 79 percent are women, with many being single mothers, and almost 70 percent are people of color.

“Some of our staff members struggle with poverty and similar issues that are clients are going through,” Reynolds said. “We know that we don’t pay social workers much money and a lot of their lives mirror the people that we serve, so that was our first priority.”

Patcher, whose organization brings together resources for the benefit of the hungry and food insecure on Long Island, said he and his staff did not anticipate how rapidly the numbers of people with food insecurity throughout Long Island would grow. Over the past year, he said, the number of people throughout the island struggling with food insecurity has grown from 259,000 to 485,000.

According to 2019 U.S. Census figures, the cumulative population of Nassau and Suffolk was around 2.8 million people. Those estimates paired with Patcher’s figure results in more than 17 percent of Long Islanders suffering from food insecurity right now.

“As we started to do our work, we knew we would have to expand our options, we knew we were going to have to locate additional warehouse facilities because we had a pretty good idea on how much food was going to be required to get the job done,” Patcher said.

Gil, whose organization is a dynamic regional cultural organization featuring music, art, dance, dramatic arts and film, had a slightly different experience than the other three panelists.  Since the center revolves around in-person programs, classes, events, and festivals, a quick transition plan was required to survive.

“We partner with a great variety of social service organizations because the arts are a good outlet, but in a climate like this, we had to figure out ‘what are we going to provide?’,” Gil said. “It didn’t sound like something, to me, that was going to end quickly, so I made the decision we were going to move everything online and how we did that was going to be something every department head had to come up with an idea on how to do that.”

Gil said most every in-person class or program the center offered to the public, aside from fencing, was transformed to the online platform. Though the center still thrives off of in-person interaction, one of the silver linings a virtual presence brought was the expanded outreach of participants throughout the country being able to log on and access.

While the arts center doesn’t combat issues such as hunger and poverty head-on, its courses and programs, whether in-person or virtual, provide a mentally stimulating outlet for those in at-risk homes or communities, Gil said. The issue of mental health and the growing restrictions that tele-health and other outlets that did not function in-person due to the pandemic, is one that the federal government needs to address, the panelists said.

Reynolds spoke further on the matter, discussing the disparities and continuously growing inequities for Long Island’s communities. While the pandemic certainly

“One of the things we’ve come to understand is that, what we saw during [the pandemic], is a product of decades, in fact generations worth of neglect, chronic unemployment, and chronic illiteracy,” Reynolds said. “When you look at the contrasting communities, Hempstead and Garden City, for example, and ask why is Hempstead that has exponentially higher numbers of deaths than Garden City, well I know why. Those disparities didn’t appear overnight and they won’t disappear overnight.”

While the inequity of school funding in Nassau County is an issue unto itself, the inequities for these profit organizations, that aid the populations that need them most have been magnified due to the pandemic. In the recently-passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, roughly $400 million is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture that will go to the Emergency Food Assistance Program.

Due to the population threshold of 500,000 to apply to the federal CARES act passed last spring, Hempstead was the only town in Nassau County that received funding. The town was granted $133 million in federal aid while the county received $103 million. This time around, the American Rescue Plan provided Hempstead with about $80 million and Nassau County with around $300 million.

“So, the county will be able to take care of their infrastructure and bail out the restaurants until everyone can come back, so this is a big move,” Patcher said. “I think President Biden is right, you have to go big if you want to bring the economy back. I think this is an opportunity for me, Rebecca, Jeff, Regina, for everyone else regardless of what industry you work in, to stand up and demand that a majority of the money coming into the area be invested in mental health services. If we don’t invest it in mental health, a big chunk of the people that live on Long Island are not going to be well for a long time.”

The panelists concurred that the non-profit sector, along with most jobs, will need to pivot and adapt to a “new normal” in some ways, whether it be working remotely or finding new ways to conduct their business. The government, Sanin said, will be another entity that will require a “pivot” in order to adapt to the world in 2021 and beyond.

“I’m excited not just about this recognition that our communities are in crisis and we need to do a better job of serving them, but also for the fact that we have a moment in time to have a conversation about what just happened to us as a society,” Sanin said. “What just happened to us is something that people on the call already know. We have tremendous disparities in our region and people have sort of been able to close their eyes about it. Now, because of COVID-19, we’ve been able to unmask those inequities.”

To learn more about the state of non-profit organizations throughout Nassau County and Long Island, the virtual town hall was recorded on Blank Slate Media’s YouTube page here.

Interested viewers can also visit the link on theislandnow.com.

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