Daniel Hastings, 6, of Jaffrey plays checkers with kindergarten teacher Judy Ayala at the Monadnock Community Early Learning Center in Peterborough earlier this month.

Judy Watkins was ready to see the calendar switch to 2021. The final nine months of last year were difficult for the executive director of Monadnock Community Early Learning Center in Peterborough, and while the mere change to January wasn’t going to make things magically better, it was an opportunity for a fresh start.

For many nonprofits, and child care centers in particular, the coronavirus pandemic created tremendous hardships and left little wiggle room between staying open and closing down.

“For me, it feels like we’re one phone call away from losing everything,” Watkins said. “I do have hope though.”

Watkins said the ability for Monadnock Community Early Learning Center to remain operational has been thanks to funds received through the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program and the Monadnock United Way’s Relief Fund.

“Without that we probably would have had to close down,” Watkins said. “They helped a lot.”

But a lot of what the center depends on is tuition, which is down.

“And I know for at least the first six months, we won’t have a lot of children,” Watkins said.

Liz LaRose, president of the Monadnock United Way, said the organization just wrapped up its annual Better Together Campaign at the end of 2020, and initial numbers show a big response from the community.

While the final total was still being tabulated, LaRose said as of earlier this month the United Way had raised $1.215 million of its $1.277 million goal.

“We’re super excited about that,” LaRose said. “If we do achieve our fundraising goals, our partners will receive their full amount of funding.”

And after what those partners have been through since March, that is vital.

“We are still in a period of COVID and a period of recovery for nonprofits,” LaRose said.

Margaret Nelson, executive director of the River Center in Peterborough, said funding is a very difficult thing to predict, but as things stand right now, there’s a reason to be both optimistic and cautious.

“What does 2021 hold in funding, that’s the big question isn’t it,” she said. “Myself and my board, we’re trying to be smart about how we’re using our funding.”

The influx of funds from various places in 2020, like the Monadnock United Way and through the CARES Act, may not be there again.

“We cant expect that’s necessarily going to be there,” Nelson said. “We can’t expect that. It’s very clear in our mind they were one-shot deals.”

But if it is, Nelson said they will use it in a way to best position themselves for the months ahead. With so much uncertainty, Nelson said “this is a very hard time to predict.”

While very few funding streams are guaranteed, Nelson said, the River Center has a number of grants that have been consistent over the years “but it doesn’t mean we’ll receive it again in 2021. The organization is in the midst of its winter appeal, and while things could change, it’s probably not going to be as high as other years.

Community Volunteer Transportation Co. (CVTC) Executive Director Ellen Avery said the funds the organization traditionally receives from the Federal Transit Administration through the N.H. Department of Transportation are awarded in March and allocated in June, and that money, as far as she knows, did not go away — and likewise for their grant from the N.H. Charitable Foundation. CVTC also receives funding from a majority of the 34 towns it serves, and Avery said the fall appeal went very well.

“People are increasing their pledges,” Avery said. “People that are giving and giving bigger because I think people are hearing nonprofits’ messages.”

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some worry.

“Every year, as I say, is a crap shoot,” Avery said. “Even when there was no COVID.”

Last nine months

Avery said the main reason CVTC was able to continue its operation during shutdowns and guidelines is easy to pinpoint.

“We stayed in business because of our drivers, plain and simple,” Avery said.

Things haven’t always been easy, but Avery said the willingness of those who volunteer to give rides to those who otherwise would not have one shows the importance of the nonprofit and the services it provides.

Prior to COVID-19, Avery said there were more than 80 drivers at her disposal. But due to concerns centered around the virus, some drivers, most of whom are over the age of 70, “opted not to drive,” Avery said. The number of available drivers has dipped to about 58 now, including some that have joined the organization since March.

“We’ve got some people that want to come back, but not until they get the vaccine,” Avery said.

But at the same time, the census per month of riders also dipped, from about 100 individuals per month to just north of 62.

“While our census has gone, the need hasn’t,” she said. “The need is there.”

Nelson said the extra funding received in 2020 was nice, but some of it was tagged for specific needs. The rest was used “for something that will position us better” — like purchasing Zoom and an Internet-based phone system.

“So we can be better at what we’re doing,” she said.

It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has forced many to seek help when they didn’t need it before, and that means the River Center has been more sought after.

Watkins said since the onset of the pandemic, the number of children at Monadnock Community Early Learning Center has dropped to a little more than half. Prior to March, Watkins said there were 87 students enrolled, and now that number sits at 48.

“It’s very difficult right now,” Watkins said, citing that it takes three full-time children at full enrollment cost to pay for one teacher.

She said the center lost a lot of children based on the fact that parents needed to stay home for remote-learning purposes and thus kept younger children home as well. Others were due to the fact that “I think people are scared right now,” Watkins said.

When the pandemic hit, the Monadnock United Way created a COVID-19 Relief Fund that generated $277,446 that has already been disbursed to United Way partners and other nonprofits in need.

“It’s the place we find ourselves in now with COVID,” LaRose said.

Staying afloat

Nelson said as a social services nonprofit “we’re doing okay.”

The goal has been to keep serving the people who need the River Center, and that has led to a more focused approach to the programs the organization offers and mission that has been longstanding.

“To make sure everything we’re doing is geared toward that mission of support for our communities,” Nelson said.

Watkins said staying open is of the utmost importance, and the influx of extra funds made that possible.

“The service we provide is important,” she said. And the risk her staff takes shows the care they put into the children they provide for.

“People don’t understand what our staff goes through every day,” Watkins said. “They put themselves in harm’s way taking care of those children.”

In addition to the down numbers, the center saw its washer, dryer and dishwasher fail. Thankfully the community stepped up and helped.

“We are getting by, but it’s a thin margin,” Watkins said.

Avery said one of the main reasons there hasn’t been a disruption in services is the fact that CVTC doesn’t rely on membership fees or earned income to operate.

CVTC was aided with Paycheck Protection Program funds, and Avery called those resources very helpful. There was also a grant from the Bishop’s Charitable Assistance Fund. But it hasn’t always been easy, and Avery doesn’t expect it to be.

“It’s a topsy-turvy world,” she said. “We’ve had our own set of trials and tribulations.”

And she feels for those that are struggling because, as Avery puts it, “there are some organizations that are really hurting.”

LaRose said it’s clear that many nonprofits are struggling, which is why the United Way is doing its part to help.

“Unfortunately that’s something nonprofits are facing,” she said.

While she acknowledges their relief fund and other funds in the response to COVID-19 have helped, organizations need to be ready for what lies ahead.

“They need to be prepared for if those funds don’t come in again,” LaRose said. “Which is why all nonprofits should have a good reserve.”

Moving forward

While the United Way saw a good response for its Relief Fund, LaRose said at a certain point last year, funds brought in were put into the COVID-19 Recovery Fund, which as of earlier this month stood at $120,000.

“So we would have funding going into the new year for recovery, because there will be recovery needs,” LaRose said.

As of now, there is no concrete plan for disbursement of those funds and LaRose said the Monadnock United Way is continually monitoring to be ready when needs arise, “so we can respond.”

Nelson said there’s little doubt that there will be a multiplicity of places where needs will increase. Coupled with a careful approach to spending, and it’s enough to keep her constantly thinking about how to pivot.

“Looking at 2021, I’m cautious,” she said.

Nelson said the River Center’s budget runs from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31, and planning a budget during COVID-19 made her look a little closer at everything. The budget went up only slightly, she said, as the goal is to ensure there is no gap in providing services.

Avery said that even though the census and number of available drivers is down, CVTC is ready for an uptick in need.

“We’re ready if the requests get bigger,” she said. “Because we know there are probably more people out there that could use our services.”

And she doesn’t expect anything at this point to put CVTC in jeopardy of not fulfilling its mission.

“There’s something to be said for having a nimble service that can be adapted,” Avery said.

Watkins said the center runs on a budget from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, and based her projections off of the previous year’s numbers, typically with a 10 percent increase.

“This year it was more like a 2 percent increase,” she said.

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