Michelle Cordova, executive director of the Willamette Heritage Center, stands outside the center's buildings. She said that normally it would be packed but has been empty because of the pandemic. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)
Michelle Cordova stood in the middle of the red-brick historic buildings at the Willamette Heritage Center and described what the scene normally would be this time of year.
“It would be packed,” said Cordova, the executive director of the Willamette Heritage Center.
Cordova said on the weekends there would be back-to-back events in the spinning room or the dye house. The center would be bustling with visitors checking out events and exhibits at buildings that date back to Oregon’s pioneer and early industrial eras.
The center’s rooms would be booked for weddings and private events and the parking lot would be full, she said.
From June to August last year, about 1,100 people visited the museum, which dropped to 100 this year because of the pandemic, said Cordova.
As a result of the Covid pandemic, nonprofits like the Willamette Heritage Center have seen fewer visitors and revenue.
And social service nonprofits in Salem and around the state had faced increasing calls for help when they have less help to provide. The local charities provide everything from places for people fleeing domestic violence, a helping hand to needy families, as well as education and historic preservation.
Responding to state limits to deal with the pandemic, nonprofits have had to cut back or modify services and programs. They’ve also relied more heavily on donors for support or got a temporary boost from special government allocations.
In July, Portland State University’s Nonprofit Institute, along with other organizations, issued a report on the pandemic’s effect on Oregon nonprofits. Surveying 490 nonprofit leaders, the report found that 60% reduced their level of services. Over half reported losses in incomes.
The report also found that 38% saw an increase in demand for services. Nearly half added new services or programs, many to help people through the pandemic.
When Gov. Kate Brown issued her stay-home order in March, the Center for Hope and Safety’s shelter for domestic violence in Salem was already at capacity, said Jayne Downing, the nonprofit’s executive director.
She said that in March the center received an 83% increase in requests for emergency shelter compared to a year ago. In April, it saw a 53% increase in requests from a year ago.
“We were inundated with requests for shelter because sheltering in place with your abuser is so incredibly difficult,” she said. “We had to scramble to make sure everyone was safe and taken care of.”
The center responded by placing people fleeing domestic violence in hotels. Downing said it got help from the Legislature, which allocated approximately $80,000 to help the center with emergency housing.
Downing said the center traditionally is funded from state and federal sources, as well as donations. She said that donations have been mixed, with some donors pulling back because of job losses and others opening their wallets.
She said that following a natural disaster it takes a year for victims to get stabilized. But the additional state money must be spent by the end of the year under conditions established by the Legislature.
“It’s almost a bit of cliff, right?” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”
Family Building Blocks, a nonprofit that work to prevent child abuse and neglect by providing support to families, has also been tested by the pandemic.
“Fundraising is definitely a challenge,” said Meaghan Levy, the nonprofit’s communications director. “But we are fortunate to be in the Salem community where everyone has big hearts and really cares. A lot of our donors are really stepping up.”
While she said the nonprofit has had to cancel many in-person fundraising events, its community and business partners helped with drives for diapers and cleaning products for needy families, said Levy. The nonprofit is also doing weekly porch drop-offs delivering food as well as hygiene and cleaning products, she said. It’s also offering emergency childcare in Dallas and respite care to give a break to parents, she said.
Levy pointed to a video posted online by the nonprofit in which staff described how Family Building Blocks is doing weekly, instead of monthly, check-ins with families. While the nonprofit is no longer doing in-person visits, it's getting in touch with families through phone and video chat. It's also used telehealth to expand its mental health program for families experiencing new stress or anxiety because of the pandemic.
Cordova, of the Willamette Heritage Center, said that despite the difficulties, she's determined to keep the center open to the public.
The center will reopen after Labor Day with new hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday – one day less than in the past.
People can again visit the retailers at the center, have picnics and see the resident ducks, said Cordova. But only on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday will the museum be open for self-guided tours that visitors. Tickets, costing $8 for adults — with discounts available for seniors, students and youth — have to be bought in advance online at www.willametteheritage.org/tickets.
“And the reason for that is fewer staff,” said Cordova. “We've had to dramatically decrease our staffing. We just don’t have the income.”
Although the center got a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection, the money only lasted eight weeks. Previously, the center had 15 employees. Now, it has six.
Cordova said that the center is still renting space for events, which she said are roomy enough to easily accommodate social-distancing guidelines. She said that the changes should keep the nonprofit steady for now.
“I am bound and determined, come heck or high water, to keep this place open,” she said. “So we are not going anywhere.”
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Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.