The holidays look quite a bit different this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of the habits and routines we’ve all come to know and take for granted. Whether you’re zooming into your family Christmas this year or mourning the absence of an in-person Black Friday stampede – things will be different.

I have made some incredible friendships in the Ohio Valley and while the pandemic has limited our ability to hang – it has not halted our desire to give back.

Traditionally, our friend group, affectionately called “the gang,” hosts a yearly Friendsgiving celebration. A time when our closest friends can come together for a meal, a drink or two (or three), and some laughs.

The Gang

This year, however, we’ve been forced to get creative.

In our efforts to maintain healthy social distancing, we decided to use the current circumstances as an opportunity to help our most vulnerable community members get through the holidays.

In reflection, it feels selfish to consider our slight holiday inconveniences as overwhelming burdens when we begin to acknowledge the incredible difficulties our homeless community has been up against this year. Limited shelters, a closed hospital and psychiatric unit and countless community and service centers unable to help folks like before have all compounded the stresses put upon our folks most in need.

Not only will most folks not see their families for the holidays, but they also may not even get to have the traditional festive experiences we all enjoy.

With that heavy on our minds, we decided to put on our thinking caps!

Over many phone calls, we batted around ideas. We brainstormed what we could do best to help. Our first idea was to host a pandemic safe Thanksgiving dinner, but that idea was quickly scrapped due to the complex logistics of handling food and ensuring community safety.

Shortly after, we decided to build care packages filled with helpful items folks could use throughout the fall and winter. Items like hats and gloves, toothbrushes, hand warmers and protein bars were all on our first lists.

How were we going to get these items, you ask? We had no idea.

We considered asking local businesses if they would be willing to donate, but we realized businesses are strapped for cash and are struggling themselves to stay afloat.

We came to the conclusion that a fundraiser would be best! We started a GoFundMe page and were off.

Little did we know how quickly the Ohio Valley would respond. Within 48 hours we nearly met our goal of $1000 with donations small and large pouring in.

Fellow Holiday Helper, Kellie Ahmed, talks about how he believes folks can help those in need.

”I think the most important thing we can do for those struggling in our community is to approach with kindness and an open mind. We can’t know everyone’s circumstances and trials, it’s our job as a community to reach out and help when we can, not to interrogate or lecture those who are in need.”

We know that vulnerable communities like our unhoused folks may be at a greater risk for contracting COVID-19. It’s important we strive to help homeless folks with compassion and kindness because, while it may not seem like the case, many of us are only one injury, one lost job, or one diagnosis away from homelessness ourselves.

While the numbers vary greatly, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, as of January 2019, 17 out of every 10,000 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness on a single night representing approximately 567,715 people nationwide.

It is important to note that this data illustrates the state of homelessness prior to the global pandemic which has, I believe, inflated the rate dramatically.

Gage Vota, founder of Stage Moms and fellow Holiday Helper, shares his perspective.

“I think it’s always important to give back to the community but especially in these times because it makes it harder for people to get the resources they need. There’s also a growing number of people struggling which leads to less people being able to donate and help out because they need help as well”

As of the posting of this article, our fundraiser is still open. Looking ahead, we plan to gather items and work with community partners to help build the care packages on December 12 to distribute them the following week.

We were astonished and unbelievably grateful for the outpouring of support. We know giving these care packages may be a small gesture, but It helps us make good on the promise that we are the friendly city.

If you’re are interested in helping us gather items and distribute them please reach out to Rosemary at rosemaryforwv@gmail.com. You can also donate directly by visiting our GoFundMe page.

Rosemary Ketchum is a member of the Wheeling City Council representing Ward 3. Rosemary is associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Wheeling Drop-in Center and on the boards of several organizations including the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. She has served as a guest on MSNBC and has been profiled by several publications including Time Magazine, CBS and CNN for her work in community organizing and politics.

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