In Austin, amid pandemic the show must goes on

Online church and virtual tutoring among ways of coping with coronavirus closures

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Mateusz Janik

AustinTalks

Last week, Rev. Colleen Vahey was planning to lead worship on Sunday at Third Unitarian Church from her house – with over 50 people tuning in from their own homes.

Despite not being together physically, the Austin church is adjusting to a new normal like so many other West Siders affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We were able to have more homebound members join us and even had members who moved … call in to reconnect with our community," Vahey said. "It required some hard work to put it together on short notice, but it was tremendously rewarding to feel connected during this time."

Like other places of worship, Third Unitarian Church of Chicago, 301 Mayfield Ave, had moved its Sunday services online even before Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced a statewide stay-at-home order that started today at 5 p.m. and is to stay in effect through at least April 7.

Austin residents and businesses have been experiencing the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which has already killed at least six Illinoisans and infected hundreds of others.

Some businesses have seen a big drop in customers, while others have seen increased demand.

"Our orders have risen exponentially in less than a week," said Liz Abunaw, founder of Forty Acres Fresh Market. "We're getting more a day than we used to get in one week, and from a capacity standpoint, I don't how much more we can do."

Being a fresh produce delivery service that accepts SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, Abunaw has been getting orders from around the city, well beyond Austin and the West Side.

Abunaw also has provided fresh produce to children and families served By The Hand Club For Kids.

"As much as we've seen this bring out the worst in some with people hoarding, this has also really brought out the best in people," Abunaw said. "I'll still be going out and making sure that people have groceries and the things they need."

By The Hand Club For Kids is packing and delivering fresh produce to households in each of the neighborhoods it serves while also providing educational materials and basic necessities.

"We are excited about the opportunity of making fresh vegetables and fruit available to our children and families because we do live in a food desert here in Austin," said Donnita Travis, executive director of By The Hand Club For Kids.

Abunaw was able to provide the fresh produce through donations made from "GO-GO" box purchases,  where the customer places a delivery online and have the option to give one to someone in need.

 

As for Travis and By The Hand Club For Kids, students have been learning from home and using Zoom to connect with teachers and staff instead of being at the Austin facility.

"The students are very excited to see their staff and team leaders," said Sarah James, senior director of K-8 programs at By The Hand Club For Kids. "One of the staff even told me that the kids think we live in the buildings now because we're online, but obviously from our homes."

Other organizations including Westside Health Authority and Good Neighbor Campaign have closed their doors to the public but are continuing to offer services such as home visits and phone outreach to Austin residents.

"We're just seeing what we can do to connect our residents with services they need and help them overcome fear," said James Coleman, director of community wellness at Westside Health Authority. "We want community residents to be safe and not spread this virus around."

Although various events and monthly meetings have been canceled, Coleman said they are still working to offer food delivery to those in need in partnership with the Chicago Police Department's 15th District and food banks.

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford said he wants to make sure people in Austin and others on the West Side recognize the seriousness of the situation and have access to care.

"Most people in Austin and beyond really don't think that this is going to impact them," Ford said. "The life expectancy in Austin is pretty low compared to other communities … that alone puts the community at a higher risk."

Ford also said he is working to secure test kits for the state and West Side communities.

"Making sure that people in our shelter on the West Side have access to testing and treatment is most important," Ford said.

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