The Facebook post opened with a megaphone cartoon and the declaration “We have some exciting news!” That’s how Anna’s House announced it was ready to welcome volunteers back to its Bel Air property, months after COVID-19 prevented them from helping onsite.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment!” said Jennifer Crosson, volunteer manager for the Catholic Charities program that serves Harford County families experiencing homelessness and poverty. “I’ve had people repeatedly contact me through the closure saying, ‘When can we come back?'”

Most years, Anna’s House ushers in the spring with large groups of volunteers who help tackle outdoor projects, such as yard work and painting, across the two-acre property. This year, without the extra help, none of that work has been completed except for the creation of a community garden, so it will be the focus for the first wave of volunteers. Crosson said she is limiting volunteers to individuals or small groups of five or less to help ensure safe social distance, and all work will take place outside.

Creative approaches in trying times

Throughout the pandemic, Anna’s House volunteers have stepped up in new ways, making masks, collecting paper goods and cleaning products, or holding food drives to restock pantry shelves. These supplies support both homes on the property – one that serves families experiencing homelessness, and another that serves women and children who have experienced domestic violence.

The program itself has also responded nimbly to COVID-19. When the pandemic started, for example, one home held one family of five people, one of four people, and two of three people – 19 people under one roof. To provide more space in the house, two families moved to a local hotel with the program’s support. (Both have now found more permanent housing.)

Crosson said she heard from regular volunteers within hours of reaching out to let them know they could return to the property, and she is ready to schedule their visits “any time.”

Though it will be a while before volunteers can take on all of the supports they provided in the past, “getting some sense of normalcy back is very exciting,” she said.

Many other Catholic Charities programs are figuring out new ways to involve volunteers either virtually, via distancing onsite, or some other way. They expect those implementations to be staggered over time.