Volunteers help out with New Bethany’s holiday food drive. New Bethany has been helping the Bethlehem community since the 1980’s. (Courtesy of New Bethany Ministries)

Lehigh Valley organizations give back during the winter

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Education, employment, entrepreneurship and emotional support. 

Those four E’s have helped guide Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley during COVID-19. 

They are one of many local organizations that have strived to make a difference in the community since the onset of the pandemic. 

The last year has heightened the need for outreach and support for those who have been most heavily impacted by COVID-19. Within the Lehigh Valley, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, New Bethany Ministries, Promise Neighborhoods and Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley have all dedicated their efforts to helping people who are struggling during the winter season.  

Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center

“We know how much people need community right now,” said Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center

Shanker said the people the center serves have been able to maintain community connections.

The entire staff has been working from home, with a few people occasionally rotating into their gallery and main location, Shanker said. 

Shanker said as much as they want their programs to be in person, the Bradbury-Sullivan staff’s main priority is keeping the community safe. 

People can access 15 monthly virtual supportive services and community groups, along with three monthly arts and culture groups. Bradbury-Sullivan also offers services to LGBTQ children ages 14-21 that are currently functioning in a hybrid format. 

“What changes is how people connect with the community, not if people connect with the community,” he said. 

Bradbury-Sullivan has provided  public health outreach around promoting mammograms, has dedicated an entire page on their website to LGBTQ COVID-19 information and has made COVID-19 prevention videos specifically for the LGBTQ community. 

Shanker said the center has helped people living with HIV move up in Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout plan.

He said this is not the first time the LGBTQ community has fought against a deadly virus. 

“Our community knows how to survive a plague,” he said. “We know the cultural importance of listening to the public health experts. We also know that we have to advocate for our own bodies and our community, especially in a health crisis.”

New Bethany Ministries

Marc Rittle, executive director of New Bethany Ministries, is working with the organization to adjust to a new normal. 

When Pennsylvania was in the red phase of COVID-19 shutdowns last March, New Bethany had to stop intakes for housing. 

New Bethany Ministries started a 19-week partnership with Comfort Suites and the city of Bethlehem to allow homeless residents to quarantine and live in the hotel, while still being able to access the soup kitchen and public services just blocks away. 

“Without the Comfort Suites program, all of those households probably would have remained homeless because there were no other places at least taking healthy families during that stage of the pandemic,” Rittle said. 

He said no one in the program contracted COVID-19 since its inception. 

Rittle said they opened up more rooms in their housing programs on-site in July 2020 and created a Housing Assistance Program that helped almost 300 families in 2020. 

New Bethany hosted their 23rd annual Luminaria Night on Dec. 12, where local residents placed candles outside their homes across the Lehigh Valley to bring the community together. 

“You had the whole city of Bethlehem, parts of Easton, a lot of Saucon Valley participates in this,” Rittle said. “They all participated on the exact same night, so you have thousands upon thousands of candles lining all of the streets.” 

The goal of the event was to bring visibility to people who are in poverty and for people to interact with neighbors, Rittle said. The event raised $131,000 and had their most successful year yet.

But they haven’t seen a decrease in the amount of people asking for help this winter. 

Rittle said he is thrilled that New Bethany Ministries has been open for business for the entirety of the pandemic and that they are triumphant in times of crisis. 

“I am really happy that New Bethany has been able to rise to the challenge, to be able to address the new needs of the community,” he said. 

Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley

Pas Simpson, ‘97, program director of Zero Youth Violence within Promise Neighborhoods, said the pandemic has been a bonus for them. 

The goal of Zero Youth Violence is to prevent youth gun violence and decrease the amount of murders to zero in the next ten years. 

Prior to the pandemic, the area saw gang wars and an overall increase in gang violence. However, Simpson leveraged the pandemic to make a difference. 

“Since the pandemic started, I’ve had Bloods, Crips and Latin Kings all working together,” he said. “They’ve provided food justice in our communities.They’ve passed out over 250,000 diapers.”

Simpson said he helped get one member of the Latin Kings into Muhlenberg College and another employed. 

“They join gangs looking for a sense of belonging, something to be a part of,” Simpson said. “We gave them a positive thing to be a part of and that was part of the difference instead of part of the problem.” 

Simpson said since the start of the pandemic, they have handled every fire victim in the city of Allentown through a fire relief coalition with the Red Cross, Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, Community Action Development Cooperation of Allentown  and the Ortiz Ark Foundation

He said Promise Neighborhoods has been communicating with the community through a 24/7 hotline, social media, text line and through fliers. 

Simpson said even during the winter they are always on call with their violence prevention and COVID-19 relief hotlines. 

“Our need to provide fresh fruits and vegetables, our need to provide diapers, all of those things have heightened during the winter season,” he said. “Especially those who are already suffering financially.”

Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley

Victoria Montero, executive director of Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley, said the organization has  been able to remain open since the pandemic started in March. 

She said even though they are operating virtually, they have provided clients with food, community referrals and connections. 

Montero said they started connecting with their seniors through virtual appointments, meetings and food deliveries. The center has worked in collaboration with La Mega, the Hispanic radio station for Allentown and Reading, to disseminate COVID-19 information. 

She said they have seen an increase of over 120 percent of people utilizing their food pantry in less than a year because of increasing food insecurity. 

The Hispanic Center partnered with St. Luke’s to host a two-day event on Feb. 19 and 20 where local residents, aged 65 and older, can receive a free dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The Center also hosted their annual Health Equity Summit in October, which focused on racial issues. 

Montero said more than 300 people attended their session and allowed more people to participate virtually. 

She said they have held monthly community conversations on issues affecting the Latino community such as racism and education. Future talks will focus on mental health, law enforcement and immigration. 

“Being able to have these sessions virtually, we’re able to reach out to more people and be able to provide more information on topics that are critical to the needs of the Hispanic community,” Montero said.

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