“Everyone Came Together”:
How Williamson County’s Mobile Outreach Team Activated Our Community’s COVID Response
~Suzy Pukys, Georgetown Health Foundation
As a local funder supporting health and human services, Georgetown Health Foundation (GHF) works to help the helpers. We see the difference they make for people who need food, housing, healthcare, education, employment, transportation, and childcare. We invest in opportunities to strengthen and scale their work to serve more people, better.
So, in spring 2020, when the pandemic forced its way into all of our lives, prompting nonprofits and first responders to spring into action in new and unexpected ways, we directed our resources to efforts designed to support our most vulnerable neighbors.
This story spotlights one such effort from the everyday heroes who walk among us. Community Organizations Active in Disaster, or COAD – was and is a collaboration led by Annie Burwell, Williamson County’s Mobile Outreach Team (MOT) Director, in partnership with Pam Ward of the County’s Parks Department, outreach pastors from local churches, and every member of the Mobile Outreach Team, including administrative staff. These individuals were central to mobilizing 51 churches and 103 nonprofit agencies and volunteers to donate, collect, and distribute needed goods and services to those who needed them through the pandemic, particularly during those first, uncertain spring and summer months in 2020.
But before we dig deeper into the Community Organizations Active in Disaster work, a word about the Mobile Outreach Team. The Team is a group of mental health first responders, working within the County’s Emergency Management Services. They integrate with EMS, police, and fire departments to manage and transport patients suffering from mental health issues, creating a comprehensive, mobile healthcare system in Williamson County.
As you might imagine, the Mobile Outreach Team’s work is intense. Under the umbrella of mental health first response, MOT is called upon to render aid to Williamson County residents who have overdosed, problem-solve for people experiencing homelessness, and de-escalate violent situations where mental health crisis is a factor. MOT staff describe the work as stressful, challenging, rewarding…and constant.
Not surprisingly, the onset of COVID-19 only exacerbated mental health crises across the County. Just as the Team was designing new protocols to respond to people in a moment when it felt unsafe to breathe each other’s air or to make any kind of physical contact, Emergency Management Director Michael Shoe asked Annie to activate a county-wide Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD), a group that “…coordinates the emergency response and recovery efforts of community organizations in the event of a disaster.” COADs have been established across the U.S. to respond quickly to disasters, helping communities move quickly from rescue to recovery. The County’s emergency management leadership was instrumental in catalyzing this response, understanding early that the whole community would need to be involved, and calling upon the talented people in their ranks who could engage them.
While MOT was figuring out how to get the COAD moving in early March, Pam Ward in the County Parks Department got a call from Director Shoe asking her, as she recalls, to “answer a few emails” related to concerns surrounding emerging news about the coronavirus. “I had just started my job at the Parks Dept. when I got the call,” Pam remembers. Within days, Pam was serving as the COAD’s coordinator and liaison with churches. Annie explained their working relationship as: “Pam finds the resources; Annie meets the resources.”
Pam leveraged her knowledge and skills to make contact with people who wanted to help, establishing distribution hubs and a storage warehouse for PPE, food, water, and other goods to serve every community across the County, while Annie worked with her team to deploy these resources – material and financial – to the people who needed them.
Distribution hubs are still being utilized across the County to address basic needs, often within churches and nonprofit organizations. Even Wilco’s EMS Conference Room in Georgetown remains such a hub, allowing MOT and EMS staff to grab supplies for folks as they are responding to an emergency.
This coordination, organization, and distribution of literally thousands of goods and services was a herculean effort that required involvement beyond the County’s staff. Annie and Pam recognized Mel Stauber of Celebration Church, Chad Warren of First Baptist Church, Doug James of Hill Country Bible Church, and Derick Zwerneman of Austin Disaster Relief Network as key COAD advisors. These leaders galvanized their faith communities and surfaced wide-ranging resources to help their neighbors. Below are examples of items that were distributed throughout COVID and Winter Storm Uri:
But this is only part of the story. Let’s now turn back to the Mobile Outreach Team’s dual role as mental health first responders and distributors of greatly needed goods and services. The Team was used to thinking on their feet in a crisis, but the intertwined escalation of mental health crises and unmet basic needs begged the question:
“Am I going to die doing my job?”
With limited knowledge of the coronavirus, MOT and all first responders had to quickly learn how to protect their own lives while potentially saving others. How is this possible in a pandemic? The Team had the answer embodied in a recent addition to the team – Rico Williams – who happened to hold a master’s degree in public health. With his background in epidemiology, Rico not only helped MOT and emergency management develop safety protocols when working with the public – wearing PPE, putting on/removing a hazmat suit, administering a COVID test – he trained and equipped residential care facility directors to do the same.
Rico recalls, “When we would come to residential centers with PPE and food, people would cry.” His safety training helped everyone feel more secure as they did their work. Rico also found himself helping residential centers find creative solutions to keep their residents socially distant, like installing shower curtains in shared bedrooms to create separation.
Ife Oyedokun, MOT quality assurance clinician, reiterated that the work requires flexibility and a willingness to do what needs to be done, especially over the last 18 months. “You go out for one thing,” he reflected, “but it’s never one thing.”
To illustrate this point, MOT staff shared that the calls to the field they were receiving with COVID’s onset were more intense and violent, with more drug overdoses and suicide outcries than ever before. They noted a concerning uptick in suicides of 18-20 year olds, as well as suicidal outcries coming through virtual spaces, like the remote classroom. MOT staff found themselves visiting homes following requests from teachers whose students had shared they were feeling suicidal through the Chat function in Zoom during class time. Team members also described their rush to provide temporary housing for dozens of homeless folks during the February freeze, many of whom were sick and disabled. Annie explains that in the context of a disaster like COVID and Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, the MOT “…is the responder of first resort [and] the payer of last resort,” describing the overlay of months of ongoing crisis as “exhausting.”
Still, this Team, like all first responders, showed up every day and went to work. Throughout our discussion, I asked more than once how they were able to do the work, to keep going. Ife said he sees clearly that his job has purpose and value, as does the rest of his team. Herein lies another key to their success – the Team knows the work matters, that they matter, and that their work makes a difference in the lives of their neighbors.
Regarding their response to COVID, Ife said simply, “Everyone came together.” To me, this statement acknowledges that the Mobile Outreach Team, County leadership and staff, church leaders, nonprofit organizations, volunteers and many others knew with certainty that the only way to respond effectively to a pandemic-level crisis was through unity and partnership. Together.