Reflecting on the Rescue, Recovery and Rebound of our Community

by Ann Murtlow – President & CEO, United Way of Central Indiana


One year ago.


All over my social media are reflections from so many of my colleagues, friends, and family members about the pandemic’s anniversary. We are remembering when hugging a grandparent wasn’t a life-or-death risk. We are reflecting on the lightning-fast timeline of hugs to handshakes to elbows to an all-out lockdown. And, devastatingly, there are too many of us who are mourning the loss of people we knew and loved who lost their battle with COVID-19.


To commemorate the anniversary, NBC Nightly News asked people to upload the last photo taken on their phone before the pandemic.


I have one of those, although it’s a photograph of me rather than shot by me.


Uniting the Rescue Effort — Friday, March 13, 2020


Just two weeks prior to Friday the 13th, United Way of Central Indiana was hosting its wildly popular fundraiser, ELEVATE, with hundreds of young professionals in attendance. At that moment, the question was “are we supposed to be fearful of a virus now on the west coast?” One week later, the virus reached Indiana and the “what if?” scenarios of work-from-home and school safety precautions began.


Then, a few days later, events began to cancel. People were asked to distance themselves from each other in all public places. Essential items were growing scarce. Our city’s community-based organizations were preparing for the worst, and we had to act fast.


By late in the evening of Thursday, March 12, I was on the phone with the leaders of Indianapolis’ major philanthropic funders — Lilly Endowment Inc, CICF, Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, and Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. At 10 p.m., we all agreed to step up and provide significant support to help ensure our community withstands this crisis.


With only about an hour’s sleep the next day, I stood alongside our funding partners, the United Way team, and Mayor Joe Hogsett at a rather hastily organized press conference and announced our plan – a coordinated $16.5 million investment in the Central Indiana COVID-19 Community Economic Relief Fund (C-CERF).


From Rescue to Rebound


Weeks and months later, C-CERF grew substantially, thanks to thousands of generous corporate partners and individuals. United Way, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army co-hosted weekly calls with community organizations to understand exactly where the needs were and what funds were essential to help provide food, housing supports, childcare, and mental health services. Together with our funding partners, we focused on communities of color, refugees, immigrants, and our LGBTQ+ community, ensuring that those hardest hit were prioritized from the start.


In five short (and long) months, C-CERF deployed more than $23 million into more than 200 organizations throughout Central Indiana. If I had a photo in my phone representing this moment of the last grants going out into the community, it would likely be an exasperated, relieved, and determined “me,” ready for the next phase.


On the Road to Recovery


Our community’s collective response last year proved that we were made for this moment.  In addition to putting resources into the community, we helped nonprofits navigate the complexities of the CARES Act. We stayed in regular communication with local, state and federal officials to assess our community’s needs in real time. We worked closely with community organizations to quickly connect volunteers with new virtual opportunities.  We know we cannot do this work alone – the road to recovery will only come when all sectors work together.


As I sit in my home office, still awaiting the day when I can see my colleagues in person rather than on my screen, I marvel at the difference made by our work through C-CERF, United Way impact funds, and many other collaborative investments.  One agency reported to us, “These funds enabled my organization to dramatically increase meal service and delivery to our isolated senior population.” Another organization tells us, “Thanks to these resources, we could make structural changes to our facility that were needed to ensure the safety of our employees and clients.” Looking over some additional data, I’m relieved to learn thousands of families were fed and could keep their homes with mortgage and rental assistance.  Homeless clients were housed safely in emergency shelters.  Children with no internet or computers at home were given those tools to succeed in virtual classrooms. Our human services sector received necessary technology upgrades to provide services to more people in remote ways. The list goes on.


Today, I feel more hopeful. Vaccines are on the way. Schools are beginning to adjust their schedules for more in-person learning. Events are coming back to Indy. Alongside our partners at The Mind Trust, we will make summer learning a reality for those kids who need it. United Way donors, supporters and volunteers are stepping up like never before.


Recovery is around the corner. Hope is alive. One year later, I suppose I should take a photo of what today looks and feels like for me. Perhaps you should too — and feel free to share it with us.