“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” –Charles Darwin
In mid-March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck the United States and the Central New York community in a way that would unapologetically and thoroughly alter the lives of all its people. Meals on Wheels of Syracuse (MOWS) had just successfully completed its 60th year providing meal service to its clients throughout the Syracuse area. Its Executive Director, Mason Kaufman, who has been at the helm of the agency for over 25 years (and has worked for the agency for over 35 years) knew that his life, the lives of his employees, and the lives of those that the agency serves were about to be adversely affected if he didn’t construct a plan and implement that plan immediately.
As fifteen-time all-star catcher and former New York Yankee Yogi Berra once said, “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.” At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this was the fork in the road for Meals on Wheels of Syracuse and its director. MOWS needed to make changes and they needed to make them fast.
As a bit of historical background, over sixty years ago, MOWS started by serving eight clients a day in their first week and had only two employees. Since then, it has evolved from a program that feeds its clients to a nutrition program to an organization that has positioned itself as a health care partner in the community. This evolution has helped to improve the health of its clients, reduce hospital and emergency department admissions, and save precious health care dollars.
“More Than A Meal” is one of the phrases that is used to describe how MOWS has expanded and diversified its services throughout the years. Today, they have 16 employees and are projected to serve close to 230,000 meals to their clients this year . . . an increase of 8%. Additionally, MOWS has seen a 13% increase in the number of clients it serves since the beginning of the pandemic. Their services have been, and continue to be, vital to the community. Approximately 90% of the clients they serve are over 60 years old and 25% are 85 years or older. People in the Syracuse area rely heavily on the service that MOWS provides to ensure that they can get the required daily nutrition within the comfort of their own homes.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck this country and Central New York, Mason Kaufman and his management staff were faced with a variety of challenges to insure the viability of MOWS . . .and there wasn’t an instruction manual to navigate these challenges. These challenges included but were not limited to the following:
While these challenges aren’t unique to MOWS, they are and have been difficult challenges to resolve. Early in the process, the agency received some very positive news. They were classified as an “essential service” by our government. That decision would allow the agency to carry on its mission for the community.
General Colin Powell once said, “Leaders honor their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them.” As the executive director of an agency tasked with providing its clients with nutritional meal service, Mason Kaufman wasn’t about to change their core values. How the agency would execute those values required a LOT of flexibility. As Kaufman put it, “In order to keep both our clients, employees and volunteers safe, we transitioned to providing meals 3 days per week. Additionally, we had to rent a freezer trailer that would allow us to prepare and stock frozen meals for several days.” This required a temporary change in direction as the agency typically provided meals 5 days per week and included a hot meal and a cold meal. The agency was able to make this transition seamlessly.
Volunteers are the life blood of many non-profit organizations . . . and MOWS is no exception. Many of the volunteers that have routinely delivered meals for the agency were unable to fulfill that task because of the potential exposure and vulnerability to the virus. MOWS turned to the United Way of CNY who successfully recruited additional help to augment the existing pool of volunteers for the agency.
Two significant and interrelated issues remained. The issue of retaining employees and how to solidify the financial viability of the agency needed to be addressed. Over the years, MOWS expanded their funding streams to cover the cost of meals and reach more seniors and adults with disabilities. Historically, the bulk of the funding for MOWS has come from government reimbursement programs.
To ensure that the agency had the funding to retain their employee base and maintain client and financial continuity, they turned to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). This is a federal stimulus program offered by the United States government and administered by local banks, whose objective is to provide funding to stabilize their employee base. To learn more about the application process and program parameters, MOWS turned to the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at OCC for guidance. MOWS worked closely with SBDC Advisor Mark Pitonzo to understand the program and eventually they applied for funding with their representative from M&T Bank.
Ultimately, they were approved for the program. Approval for the PPP program allowed them to maintain the employment of all their employees and continue to serve the needs of the CNY community. According to Executive Director Mason Kaufman, “I found the PPP process somewhat complicated and confusing, with the program parameters changing monthly. It was great to have the advice and support of Mark Pitonzo to help guide me past the static and interference to better clarity on process and discretion.”
For more information on Meals on Wheels of Syracuse, please visit their web site at www.meals.org.
Article published in the 'The Central New York Business Journal' on September 21, 2020
Article by Mark Pitonzo, a business advisor at the Small Business Development Center’s satellite office located at Onondaga Community College @Liverpool. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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