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Keeping Families Resourced During the Pandemic

Karina Van Meekeren is the family program development and admissions manager for Jeremiah Program’s Rochester campus in Southeast Minnesota.

Karina explains how the pandemic has forced many single mothers in poverty to choose between physical and financial safety.
What were your biggest concerns for the families you work with when the pandemic first began?

The worry and fear for our families overall. Being able to connect with them and give them resources and offer support throughout the whole thing. What was it going to look like for so many different areas? When it first started, we didn’t know. People were freaking out over toilet paper. What was the diaper outlook going to be like? What was the formula outlet going to be like?

We don’t have a residential campus yet. It’s in the process of being built. And, so, one of the biggest things also was: Is our construction going to continue? Are the families going to be able to move in this summer? We have so much riding on that. For most of our families, the timeline is critical. We cover all of Southeast Minnesota, so we have 11 counties and we have families in five of those counties right now. It’s difficult because they’ve put in notice or they’ve let their landlord know that they’re planning on moving, and now that may be prolonged.

What were your biggest concerns for the staff you supervise?

Some of the staff were afraid about losing their jobs. We tried to reassure them from the beginning; I knew that we would have definitely enough work to go around, working with our families and ensuring that they were taken care of and meeting their needs. But that was a fear for sure. And I would say just figuring out the go-forward plan with so much uncertainty was difficult.

Now, we’re settled in and we know what we’re supposed to be doing and what it looks like. But how long is this going to last? It’s a lot of unknowns. 

How has your job specifically changed since the pandemic began?

In the beginning it felt like we were trying to make sure everybody was going to stay busy by working from home, not realizing the [work]load of keeping our families calm and trying to get them through this in a manner that didn’t seem chaotic. Truly, the family coaches and myself probably doubled our caseload because we have so many families that we’re touching base with two and three times a week instead of once a week. 

I am on multiple committees that are now meeting and trying to mitigate the go-forward plan. Last week I think I hit a wall and I really was frustrated. Now, this week is good again. I feel that’s just how it might be right now for everyone; like it or not, we’re on a roller coaster. And that’s ok, too. Whatever people are feeling through this—it’s all valid and it’s all ok.

I feel really tied to my computer every single minute of every day. I don’t have a good office chair at my house that I’m now sitting in for 10 hours a day. I just have my laptop; I don’t have my big monitor. I don’t have like a great setup. I’m hunched over and on the phone and on the computer all day every day. I’m not used to that. It’s just making those adjustments that you didn’t think of.

“Jeremiah had a plan in place. There was good communication right from the get-go. They put together committees, although we didn’t wait for the committees to have action; we took action locally first.”

Karina Van Meekeren, Rochester-Southeast Minnesota
What kinds of support are your clients needing when you check in? What themes are you noticing?

For the moms who have lost their jobs or are temporarily laid off, it’s getting unemployment. It’s getting in the systems that are overloaded. That part is difficult. We’re doing some budget planning with them, like, “Okay, well this is one month for sure, but let’s plan for two months just in case. Where can your budget go down a little bit?” There are a lot of food supports in Southeast Minnesota, so that part hasn’t been as difficult. And we have a lot of businesses that are offering free food during the day, which is a huge, huge help. 

For the moms who are in recovery, community plays such a big part of their sobriety, so not having that is really difficult. Online meetings are definitely not the same as in-person or meeting with your sponsor. Mental health is a biggie—getting appointments with doctors because maybe they need a med change right now because their depression has skyrocketed or because their anxiety has gone up and they’re not sleeping well. No doctors want to give med changes virtually. They want to see you in person. Those availabilities are few and far between.

And then also navigating the kids being at home all day. The moms [are] now going to online learning if they’re enrolled in school. They’re not used to having kids around all day and trying to do their schoolwork or their homework. It’s madness.

I’m either seeing families that we’re needing to connect with multiple times a week, or it’s completely the opposite and they have isolated themselves are finding it hard to get out of bed. So, we just focus on, “Let’s do one thing today. Let’s get that one thing done, and that’s going to be a success.” 

What examples of resilience or mutual support between the moms have you seen? 

We have 27 active families right now between our two Empowerment courses and our life skills participant group, and those have been wonderful. They also have a Messenger group with each other that we’re not involved in, and they’re incredibly supportive right now of each other through that.

We have several pregnant moms who are really worried about what the pandemic is going to look like. We had a mom who just gave birth this week, and that was so very different than what she’s experienced before with her other child. The support from each other through that has been really, really good. I think some of them are feeling a lot closer with each other than they did before. 

How is Jeremiah Program supporting moms in response to the crisis?

Jeremiah had a plan in place. There was good communication right from the get-go. They put together committees, although we didn’t wait for the committees to have action; we took action locally first. We sent out gift cards to our families and had interaction with them right away, just knowing that committees take time, even the best committees. But the committees have been really good at doing what needs to be done and meeting deadlines to get products to our families.

The Child Development Curriculum committee has done a phenomenal job putting together packets per age group that we can get for our families. It helps them with staying on task and keeping the children busy while the moms are able to do their schoolwork themselves. 

There is also a committee to [get] technology … in the hands of some of the families, because that’s an issue. We have some who don’t have technology capabilities, whether it be from bandwidth or internet or no phone service. So, we have a committee that’s been working on that too, and they’ve addressed some of the needs really quickly. 

What do you want people to understand about how the pandemic is affecting a single mothers in poverty?

Single moms in poverty—not always, but typically—don’t have another support system. We have moms who are struggling in dealing with difficult decisions right now: “I could continue at my job at the grocery store, which is really needed right now, but I’m the only person for my little one at home. And, so, if I get sick, then what?” Or “What if I end up in the hospital?  I don’t have anybody to take care of my child. So, do I not go to work? Or do I go to work and risk both of our health every single day?” There isn’t someone else.

Do you have any thoughts about how you think things will be different going forward after the pandemic? 

I think it will be a new normal; what that looks like, I don’t know yet. Our program has such a foundation in the community of it and the togetherness of it. Changing that could change different components of our program. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I know that we’re going to look at different ways of doing things, and that’s okay. These times in our life are changing times, and that’s a good thing. We can go on a different path and end up in a better place that we didn’t even know was possible. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and content.

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