The Interview with Linda Zimmerman, Executive Director, and Lisa Smith, Deputy Director, of Neighbors in Need

Lisa Smith (L), Deputy Director and Linda Zimmerman (R), Executive Director

Neighbors in Need (NIN) was founded in Lawrence during the 1983 recession by an Episcopal minister and a nun. While it is not a religious organization, NIN has always been an active coalition of churches working to address hunger in local neighborhoods. NIN’s continued focus is to provide locations accessible by foot, since many people in Lawrence do not have reliable transportation. COVID-19 has had an enormous impact on the work NIN does in the community. This interview focuses particularly on NIN’s successful response to the pandemic.

Meet Linda and Lisa
When Linda Zimmerman assumed the role of Executive Director of NIN 16 years ago, her focus was to establish a shopping experience that provided choice and dignity. NIN shifted from providing pre-packed bags of food to clients to encouraging them to enter its centers to shop for their food. Additionally, in the past 10 years, NIN began distributing fresh produce and meat as well as shelf-stable pantry items. NIN even started a giving garden that produced over 10,000 pounds of fresh produce last year. Under Zimmerman’s guidance, NIN expanded from 7 distribution centers to 13, and gave out approximately 190,000 pounds of fresh produce in 2019.
Deputy Director Lisa Smith joined NIN seven years ago. She has expanded the diaper program and highlighted it as a critical need in the community. The diaper program currently distributes approximately 100,000 diapers per year.

What has the impact of COVID-19 been on NIN, and how have you adjusted?

NIN had to completely change the way in which we deliver food and diapers. Food deliveries by our staff and volunteers to high-risk clients also increased dramatically. Volunteers in the warehouse now pack groceries and set up tables in a parking lot for “pick up and go” in four different locations. NIN had to be nimble and quickly adapt because we are serving hard-hit areas and we have almost doubled the number of people we serve.

When you think of the volunteers and services you provide to the community, is there a specific person or persons that come to mind?
Our delivery drivers have developed strong trusting relationships with our clients and are often a connection to high-risk, isolated individuals in the community. One of our volunteer drivers had been making regular deliveries to a family who was high-risk due to underlying health issues. The family’s high school-aged son reached out to the driver because the family was in financial distress and possibly facing eviction. NIN put the family in touch with social service agencies that were able to provide rental assistance. The strong trusting relationship that the NIN volunteer driver established with the family enabled them to feel comfortable to reach out and ask for help.

How is TPC’s grant being used?
The TPC grant has been critical for providing the resources necessary to continue operating during this difficult time. A key tool it helped fund is a group text phone app, which enabled NIN to pivot and adjust how we operate during COVID-19. The technology has provided an effective and efficient way to communicate with our volunteers and clients, organize packing and deliveries, and assist with contact tracing. Another COVID adjustment for NIN was relying on food deliveries as opposed to in-person shopping. The TPC grant provided funds to hire additional drivers to meet this critical need. Without the grant money, we wouldn’t have been able to deliver to as many families in this COVID-impacted population.

Given the challenges of the past year, what are you most proud of?
We are proud and grateful that we could continue to serve everyone who needed help during the COVID crisis. We have never turned anyone away and were able to deliver to all of our at-risk clients. We were able to change, improve, and be part of the solution for our community, while providing an opportunity for people to help people. We also have been recognized by some of our partner agencies for being an organization that will always show up if they, or their clients, call us for help.

What concerns do you have as we enter 2021?

The past year has been incredibly challenging, but we persevered. Our donations increased even in the absence of our standard fundraising events. An issue of concern is that the recovery curve in Lawrence will lag that of other areas, and it will take longer for the health and employment situation to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Will donations decrease as people’s priorities shift? Will volunteers remain active as people’s lives return to a more normal routine?

How can TPC help beyond the grant?
We have a great group of consistent TPC volunteers involved with food packing/distribution and diaper services, and we hope that continues in 2021. We are incredibly grateful to the TPC volunteers and look forward to strengthening and expanding the partnership.