Community COVID outreach counselors Amanda Etchey and Brandi LaFave (right), of Volunteers of America Western Washington, ask questions as drivers wait in line at the Lynnwood Food Bank on Wednesday. The mobile program is an adjunct to North Sound 211, the phone service that does similar client intake and resource referral. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Community COVID outreach counselors Amanda Etchey and Brandi LaFave (right), of Volunteers of America Western Washington, ask questions as drivers wait in line at the Lynnwood Food Bank on Wednesday. The mobile program is an adjunct to North Sound 211, the phone service that does similar client intake and resource referral. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

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New help during COVID: Counselors reach out with resources

Funded by the CARES Act, 10 community social workers are deployed across Snohomish County.

LYNNWOOD — As nearly 200 cars shuttled through the parking lot of the Lynnwood Food Bank awaiting food distribution on Wednesday, two Volunteers of America social workers strolled the line of cars, stopping at each vehicle.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” asked Brandi LaFave, a community COVID outreach counselor for Volunteers of America (VOA) Western Washington. With a black rolling bag of resources in tow, LaFave is prepared to expand on the wide range of available offerings — from help with rent or utilities to support meeting basic needs like food, clothing or medical care.

LaFave, a 20-year veteran of the social service field, is one of 10 counselors recently hired through federal CARES Act funding to conduct in-person resource referrals across Snohomish County.

Counselors have been in the community for four weeks now. They step in with consultation on how to meet the needs of Snohomish County residents by providing connections to food distribution sites and checking eligibility for CARES Act rental assistance or professional counseling options for anyone facing emotional challenges.

“Our counselor is able in real time to connect them with some of those resources,” said Pat Morris, senior director of behavioral health for Volunteers of America Western Washington.

The program is an adjunct to the North Sound 211 line that does similar client intake and resource referral over the phone. Depending on the location, counselors have access to the 211 database of services and can complete applications on-site.

The idea for outreach counselors wasn’t new for VOA Western Washington. After the 2014 Oso mudslide killed 43 people, Morris received money from FEMA to coordinate an outreach team for the rural community that provided similar services for more than a year.

Morris said Snohomish County Human Services approached the VOA about creating a similar response with federal funding. The widespread impact of the coronavirus presented a unique challenge.

“We had to get creative, because at least in Oso it was a well-defined boundary, we knew the people, the affected area and there was an engaged community,” Morris said. “With COVID, really our boundary is anybody in Snohomish County”

In planning for the program, Morris said the team strategically mapped out a grid of the county and assigned staff to specific areas. The counselors are located primarily at social service agencies that are offering assistance during the pandemic, like food banks, food distribution sites and community health centers.

Amanda Etchey leads the community COVID outreach effort, after doing similar work as one of the two community resource advocates for 211. She said the coronavirus has made the job different, but that the team is adjusting its strategy regularly to account for which sites are busier or where a wider demographic of people can be reached.

One of the biggest challenges has been reaching residents who don’t visit social service agencies but still qualify for CARES Act aid like rent assistance. Many clients are telling outreach counselors that they never expected to need support, but after being on the job one day and forced out of work the next, times have gotten tough.

“Not everyone feels comfortable asking for help — a lot of people say they don’t need it as much as other people do — so they feel guilty taking assistance,” LaFave said. “I want them to know that we are always here for them in case they change their mind.”

The pandemic has made success difficult to track and define, but on Wednesday, Etchey said nearly 400 people had received assistance through referrals during the program’s first month.

“The goal is if we can meet with anybody in the community and provide them with services on a case-by-case basis, I claim that to be successful,” Morris said.

According to Morris, VOA was intentional in hiring counselors with experience in social services, case management, outreach or the medical field. The 10 new hires then underwent an estimated 40 to 50 hours of training before starting in the field during July. They still receive regular guidance and instruction from Etchey.

The program has funding through the end of the year. As the virus wanes and more social services reopen, Morris said, she is hopeful the counselors will continue to expand their reach.

Snohomish County residents in need of additional resources are encouraged to call 211 Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. People dealing with emotional hardships are encouraged to call the VOA’s crisis line, 800-584-3578, to speak with a trained mental health counselor 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.

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