As Dr. Meta Mendel-Reyes, associate professor of General Studies and Peace and Social Justice Studies, realized the magnitude of COVID-19’s impact in March 2020, she sprang into action. With a strong background in community organizing, she reached out to Berea College President Lyle Roelofs and suggested the College organize a Berea COVID Response Forum consisting of campus and community leaders. Roelofs agreed and looked to collaborate with other members of the campus community.
Berea Mayor Bruce Fraley got on board, offering connections to other city leaders. Thirty people joined in the first virtual meeting with a goal of sharing information and identifying any gaps in services.
“The response forum brought people together in a moment when we really needed to come together,” Dr. Mendel-Reyes said. “This was a community crisis and needed a community response.”
The group has continued to meet on a weekly or biweekly basis ever since. It is made up of a diverse group of leaders, representing the Berea Police Department, Berea Food Bank, Saint Joseph Berea Hospital, the Willis D. Weatherford Jr. Campus Christian Center, Madison County Public Library, Chamber of Commerce, Madison County Health Department and Union Church. By sharing their pandemic responses, the organizations prevent duplication of services and multiply opportunities for outreach—and it is making a tangible difference.
One of the first concerns the forum identified was a lack of information about community resources off-line. Rachel Dorroh, a Berea citizen, developed a two-sided handout listing resources such as food pantries, rent relief and unemployment benefits. The College’s Hispanic Outreach Project translated it into Spanish. Zinnia Hensley, community resources coordinator with the Berea Police Department, arranged for it to be mailed with Berea Municipal Utility bills.
For Mendel-Reyes, learning about response work in the community was eye-opening. Ruthie Maslin, Madison County Public Library director, shared the staff’s concern about the impact of periodic building closures on those who rely on the library for internet access. The staff installed a stronger router, creating an extended range.
“I didn’t know how many things were going on in the community,” Mendel-Reyes said. “There are so many dedicated people and non-profits active in the community who are going above and beyond in COVID.”
The work of the forum closely aligns with that of Berea College’s Center for Excellence in Learning through Service (CELTS), which aims to provide students opportunities to serve with community-based organizations and learn alongside community leaders.
“A student leader who attended forum meetings helped to create a survey of participants, and the survey results are guiding the evolution of the group,” said Ashley Cochrane, CELTS director. “At CELTS, students have been reflecting on how we are all learning together to do community-based work in a pandemic.”
The Berea COVID Response Forum is one link in a strong relationship between city and College leaders. Both Roelofs and Fraley have shown a real commitment to nurturing that relationship. Fraley invites Roelofs to share a College update at the Berea City Council meeting a couple of times a year and points out that the easements for many of the city’s shared-use paths were donated by the College.
“We both have many resources that can be helpful to each other,” Fraley said. “It is in everyone’s best interest for us to work together.”
With an intertwined geography, history and future, the collaboration is a hopeful sign. “While there are real gaps between the College and the community,” Mendel-Reyes said, “there is also more cooperation than we realize.”