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Shifting gears: How four local nonprofits adapted to the pandemic

For the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Julie Davenson was forced to run the nonprofit she leads alone.

She had to lay off staff members at Stonewall Farm in Keene, but customers kept coming for locally produced dairy, meat and produce.

“When everything closed last spring, our sales tripled,” said Davenson, the farm’s executive director. “I actually worked at the store by myself all week long, and it was just a constant stream of people all day.”

To make things more manageable until she could hire staff back, she spent her nights at home creating an online store for people to order their organic foods.

Davenson wasn’t the only one getting creative.

For almost a year now, nonprofit leaders in the Monadnock Region have gone into overdrive to find ways to keep helping the community despite the challenges of the pandemic, with many seeing an increased need for their services.

A local dance school held classes outdoors. An organization that supports families with young children hired more staff to space out its kids. The Keene Family YMCA offered group exercise online to give people a way to stay active without risk of spreading the virus.

And throughout, they’ve confronted new financial challenges.

While the store at Stonewall Farm continues to boom, the organization is struggling in other areas.

Its private and public events, which make up about 30 percent of the farm’s annual revenue, have been canceled because of the risks of gathering in large crowds.

“It’s significant for us,” Davenson said.

The farm also usually works with area school districts to educate students about local farms through field trips to see the animals, crops and store.

But with many schools implementing remote learning, Davenson said the farm pivoted its educational mission. Monday through Friday, Stonewall Farm now serves as a child care center for students whose parents work or who don’t have Internet access to complete their school assignments.

“They’ll have one of our educators help with that work, and then the rest of the day we have supplemental nature-based curriculum, from art to science to health and nutrition,” she said. “We of course use our extensive field and farm as a campus for all of that education, so they are here all day long.”

Now that schools are starting to return to in-person learning, she said, the program isn’t as crowded, but early on it was at capacity.

Similarly, the N.H. Dance Institute had to stop its in-school programming, according to Executive Director Sally Malay.

“We actually shifted gears and said, ‘What can we do?’ instead of ‘What can’t we do?’ ” she said.

The Keene-based nonprofit, which operates youth dance programs in the city and surrounding towns, quickly realized that online learning wasn’t the best way to keep the kids engaged.

Instead, Malay said, NHDI teachers held outdoor pop-up classes across the region, allowing participants to remain active while still respecting social-distancing guidelines.

With the help of donors who agreed to have their contributions repurposed, NHDI offered the classes for free to children who had signed up for the programs in their schools.

NHDI has been working with Keene State College’s Redfern Arts Center to let the kids perform an original, in-person show, created by the dance school’s artistic director, Kristen Leach. The show, which will incorporate a variety of safety precautions, is slated for June 12.

But with only 100 children enrolled in the program (one third of NHDI’s capacity), Malay said the nonprofit is hurting, having lost more than half its annual income.

“We are losing a lot of revenue in fees and ticket sales, so we are looking for other ways to supplement that, but again, it goes back to what can we do and being creative to solve the problem,” she said. “In a way, I think [the kids] are seeing us have this ‘can do’ attitude, and it’s a great opportunity for us to use our program to mentor.”

Rise for Baby and Family — which provides therapeutic services and child care to Monadnock Region families with infants and toddlers who have or are at risk for developmental disabilities — also had to shift away from how it typically operates.

Executive Director Alicia Deaver said the Keene organization was designated as an emergency care center, allowing it to keep providing services to its kids throughout the pandemic.

And while the program is at capacity (the agency is licensed for 40 children, who have been grouped into separate classrooms to allow for social distancing) and has an “extensive” wait list, Deaver said that’s the norm.

But in needing to separate the kids, she said, Rise has to have extra employees on site to ensure it has enough coverage. The cost of this, as well as that of extra cleaning supplies, has hit Rise hard financially.

This is on top of the worry that, as the pandemic continues taking its toll on children, more families will need assistance.

“I can only imagine that with ... the impacts of isolation on young children and the mask wearing, as well as just the general natural referrals we get, we are going to see [an] increase,” she said.

To prepare for this, Deaver said one of the nonprofit’s main goals is retaining its staff, most of whom are working remotely or taking on a lighter load.

“We’ve had some staff who’ve had to reduce time because of their family situations,” she said, “... but the short-term losses are worth it for the long-term need.”

The Keene Family YMCA has had to scale back on the services it offers, according to Executive Director Dan Smith.

This includes its climbing wall, sauna, steam room and hot tub. Additionally, basketball is available only for people of the same household.

The facility, which now offers both online and in-person workouts, has also implemented a reservation system to limit the number of people inside, as well as designating several entries throughout the building. Cleaning has been increased, Smith added, and the Y has nearly doubled its custodial staff.

“We’ve also tried to respond to the need for the benefit of the community,” he said. “I always say, ‘Our community built our Y,’ and so when our community is in hardship, we need to be there for them.”

The Y has continued to offer child care, though Smith said at times it didn’t pay for itself. Membership is also down about 45 percent, he said.

“While those revenue streams have dropped and that obviously affects our income very significantly, we have been able to tap into the stimulus money that’s out there,” Smith said. “We’ve also had robust responses from donors.”

All those interviewed said they are grateful for the community’s support throughout these trying times.

But Davenson, of Stonewall Farm, said her biggest hope is that people remember to help their nonprofits once the pandemic’s over.

“I fear that people’s memories are short,” she said, “so if you want your local farm to be there … you need to support your farm year-round, not just when there is a pandemic.”

NH's winter COVID surge is receding, but experts urge continued caution
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The pandemic’s devastating winter surge has ebbed over the past several weeks, with fewer New Hampshire residents catching and dying from COVID-19.

But the state is still seeing hundreds of new cases per day, and medical experts warn that public-health precautions are as important as ever.

“This is encouraging,” Dr. Jose Mercado, the associate hospital epidemiologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, said of the recent trends. “This is what we’re hoping for.”

But with the virus still circulating — including a new, more contagious variant — “now is not the time to kind of relax and change behavior,” Mercado said.

A receding surge

Cases in New Hampshire started rising sharply around late October, peaking at more than 800 new infections per day for stretches of December and January.

The rise in cases was followed by increasing hospitalizations and deaths. The state’s coronavirus death toll doubled in just two months, from 526 on Nov. 30 to 1,057 at the end of January.

Those metrics have all been declining for weeks now. New Hampshire is averaging around 350 new cases per day at present. The percentage of tests that come back positive has also fallen, from above 10 percent in early January to below 5 percent this month.

Hospitalizations are down, too, from their high point in early January, when New Hampshire hospitals held more than 330 COVID patients at one time. On Friday, that number was 116.

Deaths have also slowed significantly and are now averaging about two per day — down from more than 10 per day at times during late December and January.

Those figures mirror nationwide trends, which show a similar, steep drop in new cases over the past month.

“I think we are in a much better place compared to where we were in Nov-Jan.,” Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease specialist at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, said via email Thursday. “We are all being cautiously optimistic. Numbers are trending down across the state and the nation but we are definitely not out of the woods yet.”

He and Mercado cited several factors that may have contributed to the decline. A small but increasing share of the population has been vaccinated, and many others have already recovered from COVID-19, meaning more people have at least some level of immunity. Both doctors also mentioned the end of the holiday season and increasing compliance with mask wearing, social distancing and other mitigation strategies.

Even with the recent decline, case numbers are still much higher than they were in the summer and early fall, before the winter surge began; more than 3,000 people were considered actively infected as of Friday.

And hospitalizations are about where they were during the worst of last spring’s surge.

New Hampshire’s hospitals held exactly as many COVID-19 patients on Thursday as they did on May 13 — which set a springtime record, State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan pointed out at a news conference Thursday afternoon.

“Just of note, this number, 126, was the number of people hospitalized at the peak of our first wave of the pandemic back in April and May,” he said. “So an improvement from where we were, but still high levels of hospitalizations, high levels of community transmission still throughout the state.”

Chan said new cases had ticked up over the past week, driven partly by testing at colleges and universities. Of the 461 new cases the state announced Thursday, 141 were linked to higher-education institutions, he said.


and variants

For many, the deployment of vaccines has offered a glimmer of hope. At the same time, new, more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus are spreading in the U.S.

While cautiously optimistic, both Khole and Mercado said there’s a long way to go before life returns to anything like normal.

Two months into New Hampshire’s vaccination campaign, more than 150,000 people — about 11 percent of the state’s population — had been at least partially vaccinated as of Thursday, Elizabeth Daly, chief of the N.H. Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, said at the news conference. Around 72,000 of them had been fully vaccinated, having received their second dose.

Daly added that first doses have been administered at every New Hampshire long-term care facility enrolled in a federal partnership with retail pharmacies, and 75 percent have also gotten second doses. Gov. Chris Sununu said vaccinating residents of those institutions — who have been especially vulnerable to the virus — may partly explain the sharp decrease in new deaths.

But it will still be some time before enough people are vaccinated to reach herd immunity, and in the meantime, experts said it’s essential to keep wearing masks, practicing good hygiene, avoiding gatherings and taking other protective steps to reduce viral spread.

That’s especially important with the arrival of more contagious variants, experts said. A week ago, state health officials announced New Hampshire’s first known case of the B.1.1.7 variant. First identified in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7 spreads more easily than other strains, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is key to ensure that vaccination outruns the spread of these variants,” Khole said.

Even those who have been vaccinated should continue to follow public-health protocols, Mercado said, partly because scientists aren’t sure yet whether people who have been vaccinated can still infect others asymptomatically.

“It’s not really a guarantee that you won’t spread the infection,” he said, even if the vaccine keeps you from getting sick.

Mercado said the rollout of vaccines and falling case numbers should not lull people into complacency. Easing up on precautions now could spark another surge, he said.

“I’m hopeful that we are on the path to back to normal, that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Mercado said. “But I think that tunnel is still very long.”

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Request for probe preceded councilor's resignation
  • Updated

Just two days before longtime Keene City Councilor Terry Clark’s sudden resignation earlier this month, a fellow councilor requested city officials investigate his conduct.

In a Feb. 1 letter to the council and Mayor George Hansel, Councilor Mike Remy wrote that Clark had recorded audio and video during a Jan. 21 nonpublic session between the council and City Attorney Tom Mullins without alerting the participants or gaining their consent. The council had gone into a nonpublic session to receive legal advice from Mullins.

“After being caught, Councilor Clark promptly stopped recording and issued an apology for his actions,” Remy wrote in his complaint, which The Sentinel obtained Friday through a right-to-know request. “Secretly recording this session is in direct conflict with the purpose of a legal adjournment, which allows councilors and the city attorney to discuss legal matters in a privileged and private setting.”

Additionally, Remy said the recording may have violated New Hampshire’s two-party consent law, which requires permission from all people involved in a conversation before it can be recorded.

On Feb. 3, Clark, who represented the city’s third ward, submitted his resignation letter to the council and Hansel, stating that he was stepping down to focus on his role as a Cheshire County commissioner. Now that Keene’s sweeping renewable-energy plan has been adopted, he added that he wanted to shift his attention to other environmental initiatives.

“Keene’s Energy Plan has passed and I am fully engaged in my work on the Cheshire County Commission to work on further advances in renewable energy use, among other things,” Clark wrote. “Time is precious these days, so it is with gratefulness and satisfaction that I resign my position as councilor from Ward 3 effective immediately.”

Clark had recently finished a term as Cheshire County treasurer and was elected to the county commission in November, serving Keene, Marlborough and Roxbury.

Also included in Remy’s complaint was a copy of an email a Keene resident had sent to councilors, Hansel, Mullins, City Manager Elizabeth Dragon and Police Chief Steven Russo this past summer. In the Aug. 9 email, Don Curran alleges he saw Clark “bully and harass” a clerk at a city gas station for not wearing a mask. The clerk informed Clark that he had a breathing condition, but Clark “proceeded to tell the clerk that ‘it doesn’t matter’ and that the clerk can ‘not work’ at the store if he has a medical condition,” Curran wrote.

Reached by phone Friday, Clark acknowledged recording the meeting, which he said took place on Zoom, but called it an honest mistake. While saying he was unable to discuss the content of the nonpublic conversation, he said he felt it was important and that he’d wanted to record it so he “could remember it,” but that he deleted it right away once he was told it wasn’t appropriate to do so.

“I spent 11 years on the council, I didn’t do anything that didn’t have the public’s best interest in mind,” Clark said Friday night. “It was nothing sinister. It was just a mistake.”

As for the allegation that he harassed the clerk, Clark said he only asked the employee if he was aware of the city’s mask mandate — which was still new at the time — and acknowledged that he said the clause in the mandate exempting people with medical conditions doesn’t apply to store employees. He said there was no harassment, threats or yelling involved.

The ordinance, which the City Council passed amid the COVID-19 pandemic on Aug. 6, says wearing a mask is “not required for any person with a medical or developmental condition” that could make wearing a face covering a health threat. It also says these individuals shall not be required to provide proof of any such conditions.

While saying his originally stated reasons for resigning are true, Clark referred to Remy’s letter as “the last straw” and said he had become frustrated with many of the council’s policy decisions. He said he feels that his work at the county level will be more rewarding.

Remy said he didn’t send the letter with an end goal of causing Clark to resign, but to “facilitate a conversation around what happened.” Now that Clark has stepped down, Remy said, any investigation into his actions would be out of the council’s hands.

Hansel said the city had turned the matter over to police, and it’s their call whether to follow up. As of Friday, he said, he’d heard nothing about whether an investigation had been opened. He added that he was glad Clark chose to resign rather than having the council go through its disciplinary procedure.

Mullins, the city attorney, said the matter was first sent to the Keene Police Department, and later referred to N.H. State Police. Turning the issue over to state authorities ensures there is no perception of a conflict of interest, he noted.

Neither State Police nor Keene Police Chief Steve Russo were immediately reachable for comment Friday night.

During the City Council’s regular meeting Thursday, Hansel announced that the filing period for people interested in filling the seat Clark left vacant on the council will begin at 8 a.m. Feb. 24 and run through 4:30 p.m. March 9. An election by the council will take place during its March 18 meeting, which will be held via Zoom.

Candidates will have five minutes to lay out their qualifications and reasons for wishing to serve, and then the field will be narrowed down to two finalists. One of the finalists must receive a majority vote to be elected.