With donations still flowing in, Monadnock United Way is closing in on its 2020 fundraising goal.
“Despite a difficult year, MUW had raised about $1.145 million of its $1.277 million goal," President Liz LaRose said Thursday morning. She added that many donations are sent in on the last day of the year and several workplace campaigns are ongoing, so there’s still time to reach the goal.
“We’ll have our final total around the 15th of January,” LaRose said. “We are inching closer and closer, and we’re closer to the goal than we’ve ever been in the past. We’re looking forward and hoping that we will not only reach that goal, but exceed it.”
While its fundraising efforts this year have been going well, MUW has not been without its challenges. Back in February, the organization announced that it would cut its allocations to nonprofits by more than $240,000, and is now operating at a bare-bones staff of four people, LaRose said.
Additionally, as it did for many businesses and organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated things, with the demand for financial support skyrocketing among the 30 organizations that MUW partners with. In March, a separate campaign was launched to support organizations that were feeling the heat due to the pandemic.
LaRose said that as of Wednesday, MUW had allocated some $277,000 to its partners and others throughout the year through the COVID relief fund, with an additional $120,000 already raised for 2021. She noted that MUW was able to provide some extra flexibility to those organizations to help with whatever needs they were struggling with, whereas normally MUW’s allocations are to be used for a specific purpose.
“This year, with COVID, we recognized that some programs may still be able to reach those goals and provide their regular service, and others may really need the funds to keep their doors open or keep people employed,” LaRose said. “So we allowed that flexibility throughout the course of the year to help them out. We’ve had a pretty good mix with that.”
She said some organizations used only a little of their MUW funding specifically to mitigate financial struggles related to the pandemic. Others, especially child care facilities, put most of it toward keeping operations going. She said much of this went toward keeping employees on the payroll or raising pay for frontline workers.
LaRose said the goal MUW set this year represents the bare minimum the organization needs to continue funding its partners at the promised levels. But she said so far, things are looking promising, and reminded the nonprofit’s supporters that every contribution makes a difference, no matter how small.
Looking forward to 2021, LaRose said MUW will be focused on working with two new collectives that partnered with the organization back in January but took a back seat due to the pandemic. Those are the Monadnock Food Pantries Collective and the Monadnock Alliance for Families — groups of local and regional organizations that aim to feed the hungry and provide resources for families, respectively.
She said the two collectives have been working together to help bolster their capacity to serve the community. The food pantries are looking to provide fresh food for community members while the Monadnock Alliance for Families hopes to help more people transition from homelessness or housing insecurity into a more stable situation.
“When they work closely together, you end up seeing a lot more growth and outcomes,” she said. “They’re not competing for funds, they’re actually working together to make a difference in the community.”
LaRose added that the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is going to continue into 2021, and MUW will continue to raise funds to support those who are still struggling.
Anyone looking to donate to MUW can go to muw.org, text MUW to 41444 or mail a check to 23 Center St., Keene, NH, 03431.
In a normal year, The Sentinel would ask you — the readers — what you thought the top local story of the past 12 months was.
But 2020 was anything but normal, and one story dominated the local, national and international headlines.
The COVID-19 pandemic altered life as we once knew it. Homes became offices, parents became teachers and seeing others became taboo. More than 1,500 people in the Monadnock Region tested positive for the virus, and six Cheshire County residents died from it.
And the pandemic threw up various other hurdles.
Hospitals worked to squirrel away personal protective equipment, make room for COVID-19 patients and limit the number of people inside their facilities.
Providers also had to change how they treated mental health and substance use, with many turning to telehealth — even as the isolation brought on by the pandemic only increased the need.
Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities were also hit hard, accounting for 80 percent of New Hampshire’s 741 COVID-19 deaths to date.
Businesses were forced to temporarily close in the spring to curb the virus’ spread and adapt to new business models. At least several of the region’s businesses didn’t make it.
Students, teachers and parents had to adapt to a remote learning model, while many parents did their own jobs remotely.
The first round of COVID-19 vaccinations made its way to New Hampshire in recent weeks — the first glimpse of a light at the end of the pandemic’s tunnel. But state officials have warned it’ll be months before most members of the public are vaccinated.
Here are some of the year’s other major stories.
Racial justice protests
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of police sparked a nationwide protest movement and fueled an ongoing conversation about race, equity and policing. That extended into the Monadnock Region, where communities large and small saw rallies, vigils and marches in support of racial justice. Local residents gathered, virtually, to discuss racism in this corner of New Hampshire. New groups organized. Some police agencies updated their use-of-force policies or discussed buying body-worn cameras. And New Hampshire’s governor endorsed a series of police-reform recommendations from a commission he convened this year, setting up potential legislative action in 2021.
The 2020 election
The year in politics began much the same as any general election year in the Granite State, with a steady stream of presidential candidates campaigning ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 11. But by the Nov. 3 general election, the COVID-19 pandemic had drastically altered how candidates interacted with voters and voters cast their ballots. The state saw record turnout, including a swell of absentee ballots. And while Joe Biden won New Hampshire, including the Monadnock Region, Republicans reclaimed control of the state Legislature and Executive Council, and Gov. Chris Sununu won a third consecutive term. State legislators were sworn in earlier this month, though are still debating exactly how they will meet in the new year, amid a second surge of the pandemic.
A chilling murder
News of Keene man Jonathan Amerault‘s murder spread across the globe after law enforcement described the grisly details of the alleged crime. Police have accused Armando Barron of Jaffrey of luring Amerault — who was in a relationship with Barron’s wife, Britany Barron, according to what she told police — to a park in Rindge and shooting him, then ordering his wife to dispose of the body in Coos County after removing its head. Armando Barron was charged with capital murder, while Britany Barron was charged with falsifying evidence. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Housing comes to fore
Housing trends in the Granite State were already cause for concern entering the year, with a rental vacancy rate below 1 percent and, according to an annual one-night tally in January, more people in emergency shelters or unsheltered than a year earlier. And the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated housing insecurity, threatening many residents’ ability to afford rent. Gov. Chris Sununu froze evictions until July 1 and allocated $50 million for rent and mortgage relief and upgrades at shelters. Hundred Nights, which operates a shelter in Keene, drew headlines this fall for its efforts to replace beds lost during the pandemic and acquire a new permanent home — now the subject of a legal challenge. After mayors pressed the governor to do more, a revamped advisory council that includes Keene Mayor George Hansel recommended more investment in affordable units. Residents of a sustainable-living community in Peterborough echoed that call in recent weeks after being given just five days to vacate their homes due to code violations, leaving many scrambling to find temporary shelter.
A plan to assemble the N.H. House of Representatives in a parking lot and carry out a “drive-in” voting session next month has set off new concerns from Democrats, who say that it excludes members with disabilities — and could lead to a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
House Republican leadership has announced an intention to hold the Jan. 6 “Convening Day” at the University of New Hampshire, this time by having each member sit in their own vehicle and listen to speeches and vote from there.
The 400 representatives would space their cars out using every other parking space, according to a plan from UNH distributed to House representatives on Monday by the Speaker’s office. Lawmakers would listen to speeches using an FM radio broadcast.
But three House Democrats with disabilities have written letters to acting-Speaker Sherman Packard saying that sitting for several hours in a vehicle would not be feasible for them.
Reps. David Cote, Katherine Rogers, and Ken Snow have raised objections to the meeting format and requested further accommodations to participate remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Each of them has disabilities that inhibit mobility.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Cote, Rogers and Snow joined House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing in criticizing the new plan. They argued that the House session should be held remotely using a video call and that votes could be taken online from afar.
“We presented to the acting Speaker a memo that outlines a number of ways that we could meet safely, that we could meet remotely,” Cushing said. “To me, it’s the height of irresponsibility, as we’re in the midst of a pandemic that seems to be spiking, for us to anything other than set the appropriate example, and do what every other business is doing in the state, doing what schools are doing, and that’s just meeting safely and meeting remotely.”
Failure to find a solution could lead the party to turn to the courts, Cushing said.
“Quite frankly, what we’re trying desperately to do is to avoid litigation,” he said, adding that the caucus had a “legal team” reviewing options.
House Democrats are currently being represented by Paul Twomey, an election law attorney who has represented them in the past, according to Rogers.
Throughout the press conference, the representatives who had written letters spoke one by one to explain their concerns.
Rogers, a Concord Democrat, has a degenerative joint disease and uses a walker and wheelchair to move. The requirement to sit in a car would make it difficult for her to attend a session, she said. Sitting for long periods of time is painful, she said, and she would need to ask for help in order to leave her car or use the bathroom.
In order to not be in pain, Rogers would likely need to take painkillers, she said, something that would not allow her to vote easily, and would preclude her from driving the car afterward.
“My constituents seem to think that, although I am disabled, that I represent them very well,” Rogers said, referring to her election victories. “But the speaker and the Republican leadership are putting me in the position of not allowing me to represent my constituents by making it difficult for me to go to a session.”
Cote, meanwhile, pointed to his coronary artery disease and a 2018 heart attack to note that he is at particular risk if he contracts COVID-19. The Nashua representative has been living in his house since March and skipping family gatherings. Driving to Durham would require him to carpool, he said.
“I am utterly mystified as to why we can’t proceed under a hybrid option thus allowing each representative to make individual choices based on their individual health and family situation,” he wrote in a letter to Packard.
Snow’s situation is even more fraught, he said: He lives with his wife at the Birch Hill senior facility in Manchester. Snow, 81, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down in 2017 due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, and still has mobility issues, he wrote in a letter to Packard. He’s prohibited by the facility from meeting in groups of 10 or more.
“Because of where I live, I do not want to become the Typhoid Mary that brings back COVID-19 to the more than 100 other residents living in the facility where I currently reside, all of whom are over age 65,” he said during the Zoom press conference Tuesday.
On Monday, Acting-House Speaker Packard wrote a letter to all members of the House addressing concerns with the meeting format.
“First and foremost, please know that I take the health and safety of all our members and staff very seriously, which is why we plan to host what we believe to be the most risk-mitigated session of the House yet during this pandemic, in a socially distanced, inside-your-own-vehicle manner, on January 6,” Packard wrote.
He said that “every reasonable accommodation” had been made for lawmakers in the drive-in plan.
“Ultimately, every member must determine for themselves, based upon their own circumstances, as they have at previous sessions, whether they will attend,” Packard said.
Next Thursday’s meeting has taken on elevated significance because it includes an election for House speaker. Speaker Dick Hinch died earlier this month of COVID-19, the state’s chief medical examiner reported. Hinch’s passing came a week after he had been voted in during an outdoor meeting on Dec. 5.
Earlier this month, Packard was elected to be the nominee for the House Republican caucus to succeed Hinch as speaker. Republicans, who control the House chamber 212-187, voted in favor of Packard during a remote meeting.
Cushing, the Democratic leader, argued Tuesday that the voting process used by the parties’ caucuses to choose their leaders should be allowed for the whole House.
“If the Republicans can meet (remotely) and select a speaker candidate, and the Democrats can meet remotely and select a speaker candidate, then there’s no reason why we can’t meet as a unit and select a new speaker,” said Cushing.
But Packard and Republican leadership has argued that even though a state Supreme Court opinion cleared the House to hold sessions with remote participants, the House cannot begin to meet remotely until it passes a rule authorizing itself to do so, which it has not done. A meeting of the Rules Committee this month did not produce such a recommendation; the committee endorsed a recommendation that House committees include a remote option, but not the entire 400-member House.
Packard has said that the technology required to create a secure voting system would cost the state $300,000.
“In the absence of a rule which permits remote participation, such an expense cannot be justified at the present time, nor is it possible to resolve the significant logistical requirements of a remote session given the short time frame and the unique challenges of the 400-member House,” Packard wrote.
Cushing and Democrats have rejected that analysis.
The new concerns about the health and safety of the Jan. 6 meeting plans raise questions over whether Democratic representatives plan to attend. A day before the Dec. 5 meeting, a number of House Democrats — including Cushing himself — announced they would not show up, citing ongoing concerns with the spread of COVID-19 among Republican representatives at the time.
In total, 130 representatives of both parties ended up skipping that meeting, many due to concerns over the virus.
On Tuesday, Cushing, who has Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer, did not directly answer whether he would attend himself. “Certainly, I have extreme risk.”
“We’re still hopeful that an accommodation can be reached that will provide for a remote option,” he said. “We reiterate our appeal to the Republican Legislature. We want to move forward.”
As Democrats object, some in the Republican caucus also oppose the drive-in voting plan, but for vastly different reasons.
“We’ve got to get back into meeting in the House. We’ve got to quit worrying about COVID,” said Rep. Dave Testerman in an interview Monday.
Testerman, a Franklin Republican, recently signed a “declaration of independence” letter calling Gov. Chris Sununu a tyrant and calling for the dissolution of state government in response to his executive orders around COVID-19.
“I know that probably upsets many people in leadership, but we’ve got to quit being afraid of something that isn’t that bad,” he said.
On Monday, facing pressure from the left and the right, Packard urged members to have faith in the process.
“Just as the previous administration thought ‘outside the box’ in creating an effective means of holding a session in a risk-mitigated manner, please know that this administration will continue to meet the challenge and allow the House to conduct its business,” he wrote in his letter.