United Way

Because That’s What We Do: A Snapshot of Jackson County’s Compassion

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By Ken Toll

One look at that photograph wiped away my fatigue and anxiety.

Nine people stand in the neat, brightly lit lobby of a local hotel. One of them is in a wheelchair. Two or three, perhaps not fans of being photographed, look on warily. But the rest offer gleeful smiles. They were about to begin a week of modern hotel living, basking in clean linens and hot showers and cable TV.

Every one of them is homeless. Before Friday night, they were clustered together at Jackson Interfaith Shelter along with dozens of others, glad for a place to sleep but worried that, with so many people in one place, the risk of coronavirus infection was high.

That’s when Jackson County—once again—showed what makes it great.

You’ve probably heard me say how much I love this community. Born and raised here, I know our collective personality. I know our determination, our grit. Perhaps never have we needed that grit more than we do right now.

As I write this, more than 1,000 people in Michigan are sick with COVID-19. Nine have died. By the time you read this, I expect those numbers will have grown.

Some people say this pandemic is overblown, that we’re overreacting. They are wrong. It’s still early days for a viral infection to which none of us is immune. And as illnesses and deaths rise—and they will, alarmingly so—the ones who suffer the most are the most vulnerable among us.

Jackson County is doing everything it can to make sure that won’t happen.

I’m so proud that United Way plays an important role in the Jackson COVID-19 Action Network, a group of 25 organizations in health, human services, government, education, business and nonprofits. JCAN is assessing the most urgent needs, coordinating our resources and actions so Jackson County’s most critical human service organizations can meet the coming challenges, and that our most vulnerable residents remain able to access food, shelter, and other basic needs.

I’m also proud that we could partner with the Jackson Community Foundation to create the COVID-19 Response Fund. This fund, with generous local donations, will help fuel the actions of JCAN and others to address those needs locally.

All of this involves an enormous amount of work. Hours of meetings, tons of phone calls, countless emails and reports and pleas for help. And while we’re striving to help our community, there’s the underlying apprehension that each of us has: What about our own individual health? What about our families?

Then I hear the stories—stories of local stores donating household essentials, tales of people delivering them to homebound residents or families without transportation.

I hear how our 2-1-1 team is connecting people to the resources they need.

I hear from Consumers Energy—“We have 14,000 gift cards, can you get them to people in need?”

I marvel as our area school districts make sure their students, many of whom get their best meal of the day at school, are still being fed.

I listen to my team, how passionate they are in making sure that ALICE, that those in poverty, that those who are suddenly out of work, who are frightened, that those fellow residents—fellow human beings—have what they need to get through this.

And then there’s the photograph. A group of homeless people, already facing difficulties few of us can imagine, more frightened than any of us will ever know—men and women smiling in relief. Smiling in joy. Smiling because an entire community showed them that they care.

The COVID-19 Response Fund donors who made financial gifts that covered the lodging costs.

The local hotels who slashed their room rates.

The City of Jackson workers who took the time to help move them to the hotels.

For me, the anxiety of the day faded. The weariness melted. I felt reinvigorated, ready to take on the next challenge, to solve the next dilemma.

Because that’s what we do at United Way. Because that’s what we all do for Jackson County.

Ken Toll is the President & CEO of United Way of Jackson County.