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Compassionate care continues in the face of coronavirus
‘We’re still here’

Compassionate care continues in the face of coronavirus

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In addition to businesses and the economy, the coronavirus pandemic has hit nonprofits hard as well. Recently the leaders of three organizations serving people in need in Burke County shared what it has been like operating during the crisis.

Alice Horton, executive director of Burke United Christian Ministries, Sherri Fisher, executive director of the Good Samaritan Clinic and Deedra Epley, executive director of Burke Health Network, find it a challenge under normal circumstances to provide basic needs such as food, clothing and access to health care. COVID-19 restrictions have cut off their supply of volunteers and their ability to hold fundraisers to support their missions. Luckily, many other organizations, businesses and churches have reached out to provide relief.

» The new normal

The Burke Health Network is funded by a Duke Endowment grant in collaboration with Blue Ridge Healthcare, according to Epley, and refers clients in need without health insurance to receive medical, dental and mental health services.

“They come to me and enroll, and then we get them to wherever they need to go,” Epley said. “If they’re sick, we can get them in to see a doctor and we can get them medicine and medical services if they’ve lost their health insurance.”

Fisher complimented Epley on her service during the pandemic.

“Deedra stayed open seeing people the whole time, because as people were losing their jobs, they needed our care, so we all collaborated together,” Fisher said. “We’ve been here for the people who really needed us.”

Many patients who enroll in the Burke Health Network end up receiving treatment through the Good Samaritan Clinic. Fisher and Epley estimate they have seen about a 20 percent increase in new applications for health care assistance since the pandemic came to Burke County.

“Our people are not just the homeless,” Fisher said. “Our patient demographic looks like your babysitter, your part-time worker at Food Lion who can’t get insurance, waiters or bartenders.”

Staff members at the Burke Mission Station, which houses both BUCM and GSC, have rearranged the lobby and reorganized check-in procedures to allow for social distancing. Hand sanitizer and temperature checks are provided. All three organizations have masks to distribute to clients.

“It’s going to look a little different, but it’s our new normal,” Fisher said. “We’re going to screen you when you come on the porch, but we’re just trying to be responsible, because we want to protect our patients, clients and visitors. We want to ensure that this is a safe place to come for resources, so people don’t feel hopeless in the community.”

Epley said their goal is to educate as well as serve.

“Every time we give out a mask, we do education on why you should wear this mask — why it’s important and how it helps you from infecting other people,” she said.

Fisher noted that GSC does not test for COVID-19. Patients are sent to the Burke County Health Department for that.

Horton said the pandemic is making clients unsure about visiting the ministry. BUCM staff noticed when a regular client family suddenly stopped coming. They became concerned about the family’s well-being, so one of the BUCM counselors called and checked on them. The clients said they weren’t sure they could still receive services because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“After that happened, we started calling everybody,” Horton said. “People are fearful and they don’t want to come out. They’re afraid of catching it (coronavirus).”

» Collaborating for a cause

Horton, Fisher and Epley shared how many in the community have partnered with them during the crisis.

Epley and Fisher collaborated on a grant application to receive a grant from the Community Foundation of Burke County, which BHN used to rent additional space at its location at One North Square in Morganton so staff could social distance from clients.

GSC has partnered with High Country Community Health to expand its dental care practice from two to five days a week. Fisher explained that HCCH sees dental patients with insurance, including Medicaid.

“So if people call us and they can’t be seen by us because they have Medicaid, we send them to HCCH, so everybody is taken care of,” Fisher said. “And they give us a donation every month to use those rooms.”

She said the North Carolina Farmworker Health Program through the North Carolina Office of Rural Health provided supplies for GSC to treat local migrant farm workers.

“We’re trying to meet them where they are, to keep them home and safe, because that would probably hurt a farmer if COVID got to their camps, where some of these people live,” Fisher said. “We take our mobile unit — we did this anyway, but we’re on it a lot more right now as they’re coming in, to offer them education and services.”

Burke Charitable Properties provided signage for new procedures related to COVID-19 and helped with extra cleaning/sanitizing. The Burke County United Way, The Outreach Center and the Carolina Textile District all donated masks to the organizations. Horton said Grace Episcopal Church donated masks for homeless individuals. The Outreach Center also provided hand sanitizer to BUCM.

“We would like to thank the community as a whole for the donation of masks, hand sanitizers, and cleaning supplies,” Fisher said.

Horton said she received financial assistance from the Community Foundation of Burke County to hire someone to cook meals at the ministry, since the pandemic made it too risky for volunteers to work in the soup kitchen. BUCM serves about 200 meals a day.

» Many partners make an impact

Fisher shared the story of a GSC patient in need who received clothing from BUCM and overnight shelter and bus fare from the Meeting Place Mission. Fisher also was able to respond to a request from a nurse with Burke County Public Schools to arrange for an elementary school student to have an abscess in one of her teeth removed.

Epley shared the story of a client in the Burke Health Network who had to drive a moped from Morganton to Valdese to receive treatment for cancer at the Levine Cancer Institute — Blue Ridge.

“He came to Sheri and said that the last time (he had taken the trip), he didn’t feel like he could make it home,” Epley said. “Sheri called me and said, ‘What can we do for this guy?’ We talked with Greenway (Public Transportation) and bought him a pass for a month. They went to his door, picked him up, took him to the place and brought him home every day.”

Fisher expressed appreciation for the way the community is helping them through the crisis.

“I want Morganton and Burke County to be proud of all of us for the work that we’re doing, but we also want to recognize (our partners), because we can’t do this alone,” Fisher said.

Horton, Fisher and Epley are all concerned that the number of people needing services may sharply increase when people’s unemployment benefits run out or if the virus resurges in the fall. They are bracing themselves to meet the needs, no matter how great.

“We project that our numbers are going to grow exponentially because of the loss of jobs and maybe insurance and health care,” Fisher said.

In lieu of being able to hold fundraisers or take on volunteers, the organizations’ leaders ask people to consider donating funds to their ministries. BUCM also takes donations of food, but Horton said she can purchase food at a discount through agencies such as Second Harvest Food Bank cheaper than people can purchase food locally. Fisher said in addition to donations, people can shop at or donate items to The Attic thrift store, which supports GSC. The store is located at 1022 E. Union St. In Morganton. The Saved for You Clothing Store, located at the Burke Mission Station, supports BUCM.

“We want the community to know that we’re still here and that we want to help,” Fisher said. “And we ask that they keep us in their prayers as well, not only for finances, but pray that we can sustain and that we’re here for these people in need.”

Staff writer Tammie Gercken can be reached at

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