The Impact of COVID-19 on the Lives of Families with Young Children
by Melissa Passarelli, Docs for Tots Director of Programs
COVID-19 has affected the entire world, but has been most dangerous to those with underlying conditions: not only in the most literal sense of health, but so too for those already living paycheck to paycheck and facing barriers to accessing the services that could help them. Compounding these conditions, many community-based organizations designed to help families in need were struggling to adapt to the new reality: many took an adjustment period before they could work virtually to serve families, while others had to shut down completely because they rely on volunteers, most of whom are elderly, or they could not safely provide their services. In other words, once New York shut down in mid-March to slow the spread of COVID-19, more families than ever needed help.
Help Me Grow – Long Island, the early childhood partnership coordinated by Docs for Tots, saw this firsthand, hearing from over 350 families in the first three months of the pandemic (a nearly 400% increase from the same period in 2019). These families spanned the vast geography of Long Island; in fact, we heard from families from 77 towns, 22 of which had never been served by HMG-LI before. Most families served by HMG-LI identify as being Hispanic or Black, as seen in our recent annual data report, and are living in communities more affected by both COVID-19 and the economic fallout from the pandemic. Almost all the families were looking for help meeting basic needs, with the top concern being diapers, followed by food and formula.
77 Zip Code locations of Families that called HMG-LI during COVID-19 (multiple calls received from some zip codes)
Although many of our typical referral agencies for these items were closed due to COVID-19, HMG-LI was able to lean on existing partnerships to connect families to the help they needed. For example, we immediately contacted Baby Essentials of Long Island (BELI), a service started in late 2019 with the intention of making emergency deliveries of baby items to families’ homes. As the need increased during COVID-19, HMG-LI partnered with BELI to handle the influx of intakes and share outcome information to ensure connection to services. HMG-LI helped place a Hofstra intern with BELI to help manage the referrals and deliveries, and has since received funding to pay the intern as a part-time HMG-LI staff member in charge of handling BELI referrals and managing outcome data.
United Way of Long Island recognized that the needs of families were unique and through their Born United campaign was able to further support the families that needed diapers by providing gift cards for purchase of needed baby items. These cards have gone to 75 families across Long Island thus far.
Additionally, HMG-LI and the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center connected in March to determine if there were ways to help meet the needs of families. Through their community needs bank, the JCC was able to put together boxes with two weeks of non-perishable foods and deliver them to 25 families that HMG-LI identified as being food insecure.
HMG-LI’s ability to quickly adapt to the new circumstances paid off, with 92% of families being successfully connected to services; if we include services that were pending or unknown, only 2.1% of families were not connected to a referral to meet their needs. Word of HMG-LI also spread, with “friend or family member” becoming the top way that families heard about us.
With Long Island slowly reopening and as the needs of HMG-LI’s families become less urgent, HMG-LI is looking to other ways to support families on Long Island while promoting optimal child development. In April, Docs for Tots became a national Bright By Text partner on behalf of HMG-LI. Bright By Text is an evidence-based text-messaging platform that encourages healthy development and resilience in families with positive parenting tips and fun games. In addition to expert content from PBS, Vroom, Sesame Street, and the CDC, Bright by Text includes messages with information and resources specific to the Long Island community, like digital library resources, food pantries, and preschool open enrollment dates, that can be disseminated on behalf of community partners. HMG-LI has access to over 1,000 Long Island subscribers and has utilized the platform to share free developmental screening, food distribution events, and virtual family library events.
As New York progresses through a phased reopening and more agencies move towards a new normal, HMG-LI is committed to providing service updates, supporting access to services delayed due to the pandemic, and strengthening partnerships across Long Island to improve how the early childhood system continues to serve families with young children.
Melissa Passarelli is the Director of Programs for Docs for Tots, with a background in mental health, early learning, and working across systems to affect sustainable change.