Some of the most significant work during the pandemic has been done by people who are parts in a larger machine, working to make sure the social infrastructure in rural areas like Lamoille County keeps chugging along.

The Lamoille Area Health and Human Services Response Command Center is that machine.

Formed in the early weeks of the pandemic, the command center brought together a disparate group of health and human services organizations under one umbrella. That was no mean feat; the various social services components were busy enough helping their own sectors of society — food insecurity, mental health, restorative justice, substance use, homelessness, unemployment, poverty — even before the world entered an era of communication via Zoom and other remote means.

Emily Rosenbaum, of Stowe, runs outreach for the control center. In the waning days of 2020, she surveyed the myriad organizations that make up the control center on what they accomplished in extraordinary circumstances.

Here’s how their year looked.

Lamoille Restorative Center

The Lamoille Restorative Center was stretched to near-capacity in 2020, as “the deep and broad impact” of COVID-19 was especially potent among youth and their families.

“It’s been tough to witness how hard this time is for families with school-aged children,” said Carol Maloney, director of development and outreach.

That was particularly notable in the organization’s school engagement program, which saw its highest number of referrals since the program started 20 years ago. That program provides support for students struggling with chronic absenteeism, to help them avoid truancy charges — even in remote learning environments, kids have to be present — and get them back on track.

Pre-trial service staff — there’s one person — has also been busy, currently working to connect 175 court-referred participants with mental health and substance misuse services.

Maloney said the pandemic “has served as a powerful motivator” to work with other organizations; it was one of the foundational members of the county command center.

But 2020 also brought increased attention to racial justice issues, and Maloney said the restorative center is looking inward at its policies and practices to assure that everything is “consciously promoting racial justice, and reflects the organization’s core values of dignity, empathy, hope and kindness.”

Domestic and sexual violence

The Clarina Howard Nichols Center usually works quietly, largely in order to provide privacy to the people it serves, people who have experienced domestic or sexual violence. Executive director Becky Gonyea said all of Clarina’s services have continued during the pandemic, but added “this year has tested us in ways that many of us never knew were possible.”

Gonyea said the center’s hotline — 802-888-5256 — is answered 24 hours a day, and advocates help with safety planning and exploring legal options, such as filing police reports and relief from abuse reports with the court.

The center’s shelter has also stayed open while adapting to coronavirus guidelines.

Gonyea asked the community to keep an eye on itself, and offered some basic tips:

• Reach out, whether by phone or video chat, or with a (socially distanced) walk outside.

• Listen to the survivor and allow them to share what they want.

• Believe the person, and don’t question the severity or details of the abuse, and don’t judge them.

Gonyea asked her advocates to sum up some of their work. Here’s what one of the advocates said: “As someone who has been through an abusive relationship myself, I try to be the non-judgmental I’ll-walk-beside-you-right-where-you-are-at person who I wish I had had during that dark time in my own life. The more I do this work, the more I know I am right where I am supposed to be.”

United Way

Coronavirus didn’t stop The United Way of Lamoille County from holding what is perhaps its marquee annual event — its firewood project. According to co-director Ellen Hill, 134 volunteers “with chainsaws, wood splitters, strong backs and determination” put in 606 hours and helped cut, stack and wrap 70 cords of wood for people who need help heating their homes during the winter.

The organization’s New Foundations transitional housing program served eight adults and 13 children. According to Hill, the program’s goal is to assist single parents transition out of poverty — often, generations of poverty — into a more self-sufficient and independent existence.

United Way also made sure people under 18 and people in their 60s or beyond received a gift during the holidays. Hill said 59 senior citizens received gifts from 57 different donors as part of the Help our Precious Elders (HOPE) holiday program.

People also donated 236 gift cards for teens, with 68 teens receiving cards from United Way and another 80-plus forwarded on to Capstone to deliver for youth in assisted living situations or under the care of the Department for Children and Families.

“During a year with unprecedented challenges, area organizations, businesses, faith communities and donors responded in unprecedented ways,” Hill said. “The outcomes are tangible and intangible. In this crisis, people and organizations stepped into action to produce results.”

Mental health

The last year was a challenge for Lamoille County Mental Health Services, especially in March and April, according to Michael Hartman, chief executive officer. After that dip, the organization has regrouped and ended 2020 providing thousands of services for 600-plus people a week, he said. Most services are now done remotely.

“It was really hard for our staff and those who receive services to be limited in contact with providers, and to often be getting services by tele-health,” Hartman said. “However, the staff and consumers kept working at it and now we have a blend of both in-person and video assistance that is actually doing very well.”

Homeless help

Lamoille County Mental Health Services also has played a significant role in battling homelessness. According to Sherry Marcelino, the agency’s community support manager, the agency has worked with 68 “households without housing,” supporting their mental health and other urgent needs.

The agency has been doing on-site services at various emergency housing sites since July, when it became apparent how inadequate remote services can be.

“The people we are meeting with are well informed, and the essential information needed for them to maintain their current situation is clearly given to them,” Marcelino said. “However, many of them are frozen otherwise on how to move forward, what to do next and how to change their situation. If we can connect with people, give them information and maybe even hope, it can be the stepping stone in helping them accomplish their goals in life.”

Although the shelter is only open from mid-November to mid-April, Community House was busy during the warmer weather months, too, with the homeless population largely living in motels. Anetsberger said between March 15 and Nov. 5, the organization worked with 70 motel guests, and delivered 1,174 hot meals.

Staffing-wise, the recent opening of the shelter 24 hours a day comes on top of having 105 hours of staffing across three motels, in Cambridge, Morristown and Stowe.

“Last year, we had about seven staff members, now we are at 13,” Anetsberger said. “This little organization is growing, and we are so proud of all the work our staff has put in to create safe spaces for people without homes. Every time an opportunity arises to take on a new project or help organize something to solve a problem, we’ve been there to take it on.”

Help with addiction

Dan Franklin, executive director of North Central Vermont Recovery Center in Morrisville, said early in the pandemic that he was worried about people relapsing without face-to-face meetings. Nine months later, the numbers Franklin reports are bigger, as they are in seemingly every other segment the command center encompasses.

He said the recovery center served more than 6,200 people as of the end of November, much of it done remotely. The center’s recovery coaches held 804 sessions last year, a 35 percent increase, with 46 new clients.

Many of them received supplies meant to reduce harm for drug users. Between March and November, it distributed more than 1,500 doses of Narcan, the opioid reversal drug. That’s 10 times more than the center had distributed in any other year.

It also distributed nearly 4,000 fentanyl test strips that are used to detect the presence of the drug involved in 88 percent of all overdose fatalities, Franklin said.

“Perhaps the greatest legacy will be that we didn’t all just stay in our lane and throw up our hands and accept defeat,” Franklin said. “Instead, at the same time as we worked day in and day out to respond and react to what was happening in real time, we also have been looking to the future and how we can build a more collaborative, resilient, and effective health and human services system that will be equipped to meet the needs of everyone we serve and will emerge from the pandemic better than it was before.”

Salvation Farms

Originally launched nearly a decade ago to help local vegetable farmers find a place for their late-season crops that otherwise would just rot on the vine, Salvation Farms has grown into an integral part of the food system.

Among the organization’s 2020 stats, Salvation Farms moved more than 70,000 pounds of gleaned produce to nearly 50 community-based food programs in the Lamoille Valley and southern reaches of the Northeast Kingdom. Those recipients — which include food shelves, senior- and home-delivered meal programs, and affordable housing and senior housing sites — served more than 4,000 households.

In addition, Salvation Farms, along with 200 volunteers, distributed more than 1,000 plant starts for community and home gardeners at the start of the 2020 growing season. It also helped with the USDA Farmers to Families food box distributions, providing nearly 1,400 gallons of surplus Vermont milk.

Healthy Lamoille Valley

Healthy Lamoille Valley works to reduce youth substance misuse — focusing particularly on alcohol, tobacco and pot — and steers kids and teens toward healthier choices. It works with parents, school counselors and directly with youth.

According to executive director Jessica Bickford, the “Live Your Why” program expanded to include 50 activities for older and younger kids, things like exploring the outdoors, engaging in the arts, dabbling in science and spending time with families doing things like cooking and playing board games.

The organization has also published a toolkit for prevention and started a regular coalition meeting on the first Tuesday of every month.

Green Mountain Support Services

Josh Smith, executive director of Green Mountain Support Services — it helps with increased support and access for elderly people and those with disabilities and brain injuries — said the organization worked with 150 clients in 2020.

Smith said the service provides “innovative and compassionate supports” for those people, and helps them remain connected to their community.

“Our direct support professionals and shared living providers are the unsung heroes this year by keeping our medically frail and vulnerable neighbors safe during this pandemic while still giving them hope and fulfillment,” Smith said.

Fighting hunger

Both the Lamoille Community Food Share and Meals on Wheels of Lamoille County had record busy years in 2020.

According to the Food Share’s outreach manager Susan Rousselle, family visits were up 35 percent compared to 2019.

That increased demand was easily illustrated by turkeys — the food share gave out 791 Thanksgiving birds in 2020, compared to 508 the previous year.

Rousselle said the organization has been able to supply homeless people staying in local hotels with a bag of groceries every week.

“I can honestly say that this group of people are the most incredibly generous, kind, caring and talented people I have every worked with,” Rousselle said of the groups that make up the command center. “They are my silver lining.”

Meals on Wheels had to shut down its community meal, but went into fifth gear delivering food to people in their homes. It saw a 30 percent increase in need at the height of the pandemic, according to Nicole Grisgraber, the executive director.

All told, she said the group prepared 49,061 meals in 2020, for more than 275 of Lamoille County’s elderly population. That equaled out to more than 32,000 wellness check-ins.

Grisgraber said it’s not just the humans who benefit — Meals on Wheels delivers at least 600 pounds of pet food a year.

“Providing meals made with love and loaded with nutrition to Lamoille County elders is a blessing,” she said.