BNS with additional reporting from Sandra Baksys.
Children from at-risk families and elderly shut-ins at high risk of coronavirus have become even more vulnerable since the start of Lithuania’s COVID-19 quarantine. And despite this increasing need, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing assistance are facing worsening shortages of both funds and volunteers.
“We have even had such horrible calls when parents say, ‘Take my kids, we can’t make it anymore.’ You realize that they don’t want to give up their children but have reached their limits,” Rasa Zaidovaitė of SOS Lithuanian Children’s Villages (Vaikų Kaimai Lietuvoje) told BNS.
The nonprofit NGO assists around 300 at-risk families across Lithuania. With the help of social workers, parents from such families often receive treatment for psychiatric disorders and alcohol or drug addiction.
Zaidovaitė, the head of SOS’s family services, says the charity initially moved to remote communications with its client families when the quarantine started. Still, it had to carefully revert to some in-person interactions after various challenges emerged.
Work might have to be suspended because of coronavirus
The NGO Save the Children Lithuania has faced two key problems, including a shortfall in donations and a growing need for assistance among its client families, its leader Rasa Dičpetrienė says.
“We estimate that we might lose around 40 percent of the donations we expected to receive this year because of the coronavirus. Around 50 activity centers attended by about 1,000 people are the backbone of our organization. We are committed to support those centers financially and to steer our clients to them.
“But if our organization doesn’t survive, then we will not be able to help our kids, and every child we serve has a family where there might also be elderly, even children who are ill,” Dicpetriene told BNS.
She said a concert to support Save the Children had been planned for March but had to be postponed, costing the organization the 200,000 euros in donations it collects from it every year. Furthermore, the quarantine closed a majority of Lithuania’s retail shops that carried 2,000 of the charity’s donation boxes. Now, only those at food stores, a mere several hundred, are still accessible to donors.
As educational establishments and activities centers were closed, Save the Children started consulting with the families of its children remotely and providing essential food products, Dičpetrienė said. Yet, if the current quarantine is extended until the summer, she warned, Save the Children might have to close.
“We don’t have any financial reserves,” Dicpetriene said.
Less frequent visits to elderly in need
The Order of Malta’s social welfare program in Lithuania (the Maltiečiai) provides regular assistance to about 2,600 elderly by delivering groceries or hot meals to their homes.
“After the quarantine was introduced, we had to review our services,” Maltiečiai Secretary General Dalia Kedavičienė told BNS. “The key challenge we identified was delivering food safely. We have now split our elderly clients into two groups – those having vital and non-vital needs. We will continue providing hot meals to the elderly who depend on them.
“For other elderly who can still cook, we deliver packages including dry or non-perishable food items once a week instead of several times a week, like we used to, in order to reduce the risk of infection. Our staff and volunteers also wear facemasks and gloves when they deliver and have as little person-to-person contact as possible,” she said.
Private businesses are also contributing to the delivery of food to elderly shut-ins, Kedavičienė said.
In an email interview conducted by Sandy Baksys for Draugas News, program director Rasa Stukienė said that the Order of Malta is already putting together special Easter packages for all the homebound elderly and special-needs children it serves across Lithuania.
Stukienė also reported that the Maltiečiai are participating in the Gediminas Legion, an organization channeling civil society volunteerism to help municipalities fight the spread of COVID-19 and assist those in need.
“Moreover, we work with the Emergency Operations Center of Vilnius, informing the public, delivering food and medications to the elderly, helping coordinate the search for medical equipment, emergency transportation, and much more.”
Last but not least, Stukienė said, after working with Lithuanian civil and military authorities in the early days of the pandemic to screen international arrivals at Lithuanian airports, the Maltiečiai are now working with partner organizations and individuals to raise funds for desperately-needed medical supplies and equipment, such as masks and respirators. As part of this medical aid effort, the Order will also assist with the logistics of purchasing and delivering supplies to hospitals and clinics.
Gintarė Guzevičiutė, Secretary General at the Lithuanian Red Cross, says volunteers from that NGO typically provide emotional assistance to elderly people and maintain the “human connection.” Still, since the start of the quarantine, they have had to start giving food as well.
“We had been calling our elderly clients every other day and inquiring how they are doing. But then we realized we could protect them from contracting the virus by delivering what they need to their homes so that they don’t need to go out to the store or pharmacy,” Guzevičiūtė told BNS.
“We set a certain budget for every elderly person per week. A volunteer is told by an elderly person what they need most, and we deliver those items to them within those financial parameters,” she added.
Red Cross volunteers delivered over one hundred packages last week, Guzevičiūtė said.
She noted that the organization currently assists around 400 elderly, total. And it has already received almost 30,000 euros in donations to support the program.
The Lithuanian Red Cross is also now looking for around 150 “shopping and delivery” volunteers who could help approximately 800 elderly people in Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda buy products with the elders’ own money so they don’t need to go out during the quarantine.
A Call for Volunteers
Maisto Bankas (Food Bank) also had to adapt its operations after Lithuania was placed under quarantine. Just as before, some food products nearing their expiration date are being collected from retail chains and distributed to some 600 NGOs. But other near-expiration items that used to be collected by the needy, themselves, before the quarantine was put in place now have to be delivered to those people.
“In Vilnius alone, we have delivered food packages to almost 1,000 people. In most cases, they are elderly, sick, or poor,” Miglė Petronytė of Maisto Bankas told BNS.
She said she expects the month of April to bring even more challenges and more need.