St. John Valley

ACAP expands services to meet community needs during pandemic

AROOSTOOK COUNTY, Maine — With the COVID-19 pandemic leaving what many believe will be a long-lasting economic impact on Maine, officials with the Aroostook County Action Program have expanded their programs to help more people than ever before.

Since the pandemic began, the organization has recorded 620 new clients being served due to hardships specifically related to COVID-19, an overall increase of 4.4 percent.

ACAP’s buildings have been closed to the public since mid-March and many employees have worked from home. Phone calls, emails, social media and Zoom chats have become the norm for communicating with longtime clients, as well as those who never thought they would need financial or personal assistance.

Like local K-12 schools and colleges that have closed their doors, ACAP’s Head Start and Early Head Start programs have relied on remote learning since social distancing and stay-at-home orders were first mandated. Instead of interacting with students in person, Head Start teachers from across Aroostook County have connected with families through Zoom video conferencing and have posted YouTube videos of special storytimes and lessons.

Sherry Locke, ACAP development and communication manager, said that as of Friday, ACAP’s Head Start bus drivers and staff have delivered more than 5,000 meals — breakfast, lunches, dinners and snacks — as well as numerous educational materials and books, to the nearly 300 students and additional family members they serve. 

By working with families ACAP staff members have assessed, on a case-by-case basis, what nutritional and technological needs clients might have and how to help children succeed in the virtual Head Start programming.

“The staff and families have all become like family, so we all want to make sure that the children have consistency with how they’re learning,” Locke said. “Families have been very appreciative and feel like they’ve really been taken care of.”

ACAP is looking into whether a summer in-person session of Head Start classes will be possible to ensure pre-K children are prepared to enter kindergarten this fall. But much will depend on the state’s future guidelines regarding in-person gatherings and if program funding can be expanded.

Recently ACAP has seen funding for their programs expand in response to higher demand for services related to the state’s spike in unemployment claims. The organization has become the local administrator for a statewide rental assistance program for the months of April and May, and has extended the deadline for their Home Energy Assistance Program to July 15. Both programs are funded by MaineHousing.

The rental assistance program has provided help to 250 households since its inception in April.

Being without work, Locke noted, has led to 100 households thus far calling ACAP’s Workforce Development program to discuss potential career changes that could benefit their futures. Many people have become especially interested in nursing and various trade occupations.

“The pandemic has urged people to think about their futures,” Locke said. “Our program can help cover the costs of seeking education or certification, including transportation and childcare.”

To assist first-time homebuyers, ACAP will host a virtual homebuyer’s education class on Saturday, May 23, for which participants will receive a $3,500 credit toward the closing costs of their new home. 

As the pandemic situation progresses, Locke said that ACAP will continue to adjust by seeking additional funding, creating new programs or expanding existing ones and working with community partners. 

ACAP is in the process of creating positions of “navigators,” who will be the first point of contact for individuals who reach out but do not yet know what program might meet their needs.

“We [the ACAP staff] have been meeting daily to get ahead on all these issues as much as we can and see what needs might arise,” Locke said. “Whenever someone calls us for a specific service, we want to also ask, ‘How else can we help you?’”

Anyone seeking information on ACAP’s programs can contact the main office in Presque Isle at 207-764-3721.

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