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Quarantine Chronicles: Jennifer Graham
JENNIFER GRAHAM is the founder and executive director of Shelter from the Rain, a nonprofit that helps single moms in Savannah. A single mom to a high school senior, Jennifer knows exactly what her moms go through on a daily basis, and that this pandemic hasn’t changed much for them.

However, Shelter from the Rain has pivoted to be as helpful as possible for all single moms in our community.

This is Jennifer’s Quarantine Chronicle.

What challenges are single moms facing right now?

To be quite honest, a lot of the challenges they’re facing are things they deal with every day. Living paycheck to paycheck, wondering how to provide food, they already deal with that. I think it has intensified because of the pandemic, and it has definitely increased anxiety levels because now there’s elements they have to deal with, like the kids being at home all the time. You do need twice as much as you needed in terms of food and household items. A handful of our moms who have been furloughed or lost their jobs, that has made the situation worse.

A lot of the things we’re doing now, we always do it. It’s just the quantity—we do it more now.

This pandemic is like an equalizer.

Absolutely. For me, trying to help them now is beyond just what we already do. Now we have to think about what we’re giving to them, how we’re giving it to them, mentally are they okay, are we able to assess what their mental health is like.

We have this new heightened level of anxiety. We talk about this in our support groups all the time: if you break down mentally, everything else falls after that. So trying to make sure as a whole they’re okay, outside of the day to day needs.

That’s of optimal importance to me, because I know if that breaks down, everything else is out the window too. Even referencing my personal life, every part of Shelter from the Rain has come from either my personal experiences as a single mom or us taking on the perspective of a single mom. How would they feel if I were trying to help? What can we do to make their lives easier?

Because I’m a single mom and I’m actually going through this as well, I have to think about too, “Okay, I’m at home, I’m working every day, I have to make sure my son gets done what he needs to get done.” I’m cooking three meals a day now. For some people, that’s not a big deal, but that’s a big deal! I’m used to cooking maybe one meal a day or getting takeout because I work full time. So having to be a schoolteacher, a chef, and still maintain my day-to-day work so I can get paid, those are all things I’m like, “Okay, if I’m stressed about this…”

I have one son. I know some moms we’re helping that have six kids. I can’t even imagine the stress with multiple children, even if they’re older. I have a mom with triplets plus an infant.

When you think about all those different situations, plus a pandemic which would send anybody into a state of panic, it’s a lot. We try to make sure they know they’re not alone, if they do need something to reach out to us. That’s kind of our approach with everything we do, making sure they’re not by themselves, they have people who want to see them successful in every element of their lives.

People are shocked when I say that even the moms we help have a hard time, some of them, even asking for help. We have to assess the situation and say, “This mom obviously needs help,” whether she’s going to come directly out and ask for it or not.
It’s a very strange balance, because we’re very independent, but breaking through a shell and making sure they know they can be vulnerable and ask for help and that’s okay to do, that’s something we have dealt with, too.

How do you push through that?

Some of the things we offer makes it very easy. If I have a mom with triplets and an infant, we know she needs diapers and Pull-Ups. We’ll just reach out and say, “Hey, do you want to come pick this up?” I have another mom with twins and a toddler, so we’ll make the baby supplies available even if she doesn’t ask for anything else, just because that’s a huge expense and it’s not covered under government assistance.

Wait, it isn’t?

No, it’s not. There were government programs we could sign up for and get diapers at a discounted rate, and I had to stop doing that because the diaper quality was not good. I didn’t find out until later. We had one baby I thought was super sensitive skin-wise, but I had another person say the diapers were not that great, so we stopped using the discounted diapers. Now we only use donated diapers or diapers we purchased that are of the quality we need. But it’s very strange to me that they don’t assist more with that, because they’re so expensive.

I don’t give things to moms that I wouldn’t want for my own baby. Because I’m so close to this and my passion for it is so strong, I don’t accept crap for our moms. I just don’t. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you should give it to people.

How has Shelter from the Rain pivoted organizationally in response to the pandemic?

There are two major areas that we had to pivot. Our main location closed; we were operating out of Savannah Church of God, which is on MLK and 46th, but it closed because of COVID-19. We partnered with Park Place Outreach, and they allowed us to use the space for all the things we give away. We had to shift in terms of how we give things out and where we’re keeping things.

The other area was the new extension of programs we had to help moms. We started the virtual Mommy Meet-Up group, so we’ll do a Zoom call May 2 for all the moms just to check in and see how they’re doing. I’ll have a representative from HUGS to come talk about their tele-mental services. If there are moms who are mentally struggling, they can set up sessions with HUGS and we will pay for it to assess their mental state and make sure they’re able to cope while we’re going through this.

We started Help for Home, which is just an extension of our Pantry Pals program. The services we already offer to our registered moms, we opened up to the entire community. If any single mom says, “I need help right now,” we’re giving out household items, baby supplies—any outreach program we have going on right now is open to any single mom.

Our Meals for Moms is a partnership with local restaurants, so we’re raising money to pay for takeout meals for families in hopes of also helping our local restaurants that are struggling. With this, we’re able to feed families we’re serving and at the same time pour back into the community that is typically helping us during normal circumstances.

We’re always thinking about single moms. This pandemic brought an opportunity to think about the community as a whole, because everyone is struggling right now. To approach a restaurant and say, “Hey, can you donate meals?” They can’t do that right now. That’s not a fair question to ask a business. But I do know that people know that moms need help, and they know that restaurants need help, so they will give money. And if we can put that money out there and kill two birds with one stone, to me that just makes sense.

How’s the initiative going?

It just started and it’s been very successful. One of the things we’ve been forced to do because of this situation, we would never be thinking this way if the pandemic was not here. I wouldn’t be working with Park Place Outreach like this, I would not have partnered with PACK to get more food, I would not have been thinking about how we can help restaurants. If we didn’t have to really figure out this new situation, we wouldn’t have all of these beautiful ways we’re working together now.

As much as I hate the situation, I really love the outcome of the circumstances in regards to us figuring out a way to work together as a whole and not all be separate individual organizations like we typically do. To me, we’re more powerful together right now.

Do you think you’ll carry these partnerships through once this is over?

We absolutely will. Even with the partners we’re working with, all of us have said this could probably last even after this is over because it makes sense. It’s almost like a lightbulb went off and we were like, “Yeah, we should be working together. Why haven’t we done this before?” None of it was strategic, but then it became strategic.

How are you personally doing?

I always tell people, it depends on the day! Honestly, we are doing much better now than we were when it first happened. It just took us some time to assess the new normal and embrace it and be okay with it.

My son is a senior this year, he’s supposed to be graduating. This year I’ve been waiting on for him to walk across the stage, this is my only child, it took me a minute to let all of that go. But again, there’s a lot of silver lining in it. I wouldn’t have had this much time with him. I wouldn’t have been able to help him get ready for college and pick a college the way I have been able to do, being at home. He definitely wouldn’t have gotten this many meals!

He plays the viola, and listening to him practice in another room … there’s a lot of things about this situation where I have moments that I will treasure beyond this time. And if it didn’t happen, I would never have had some of the moments I had with him in the last month.

Even if things are tough, and even though there are things I wish were different, I try to focus on the pieces that are beautiful and try to find purpose in it. I really do believe there’s purpose in everything. Even though this wasn’t a year we expected, there are a lot of good things coming out of it. We just weren’t ready.

I tell my moms all the time, “Stuff is going to happen that you don’t like. You’re going to get a monkey wrench in your plans. But if you can keep your mental perspective positive, then you can get through a lot of stuff you didn’t think you could get through. It’s easy to say that stuff, and then when you actually have to practice it, that’s the hard part.