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How 4 Tucson organizations stepped up to provide support during the pandemic

How 4 Tucson organizations stepped up to provide support during the pandemic

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series

Tucson organizations pivot to serve community members in need during COVID-19

Before the coronavirus hit, Ted Tengel and his “little brother” Travis got together for bowling, golf and more as part of Big Brothers Big Sisters’ mentoring program. They recently reunited after months of FaceTime chats.

Last week, Ted Tengel and his “little brother” Travis had their first meet up in months.

Tengel has been involved with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Arizona mentoring program for the last year and met Travis last August.

They’ve gone to trampoline park Defy Tucson, bowling alleys and Golf N’ Stuff. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States, those outings came to a halt.

Big Brothers Big Sisters and many other local organizations that serve Tucsonans in need were no longer able to offer services in person and had to pivot in a new direction.

“With Big Brothers Big Sisters, pretty much the majority of everything we did was in person,” says marketing and recruitment coordinator Carlos Chavez.

Within the first week of closures, staff made the switch to online services.

“That was our biggest goal — to get transitioned quickly so they could still interact,” Chavez says. “Because being away from someone completely for three months — that can take a toll on a relationship, especially one that’s building up in the beginning.”

For Tengel, that meant hopping on FaceTime a handful of times to chat with 12-year-old Travis.

“He was distracted, I was distracted. Obviously it’s not the same as when you’re in person,” Tengel says. “But what was really cool was catching him in his own environment. Even though I’ve been in his home before, in a way, in the spirit of vulnerability, I was catching him in his natural environment and he was catching me in my natural environment.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters also created an extensive list of virtual ideas, ranging from activities to educational resources, to help maintain connections between families.

Many are still connecting virtually, but the organization recently gave families the option to do some activities in person while still encouraging social distancing and other safety measures.

Adiba Nelson’s 11-year-old daughter Emory had her first telehealth visit with Children’s Clinics in March. Emory has been receiving care through the local nonprofit for nine years.


Children’s Clinics has a history of providing health care to Tucson’s children with complex needs. The local nonprofit has worked with many of its families for years, building strong bonds.

Like many health-care facilities, Children’s Clinics switched to telehealth in response to COVID-19. Not all services were able to function virtually, though, so about 15 to 20 kids — down from the normal 150 — were still seen daily.

“Within four days, we were able to offer our first ever telehealth appointment,” chief administrative officer Gemma Thomas says, adding that such a transition would usually take at least six months to launch. “It was quite inspirational.”

Staff also identified household items that could be used to help with physical, occupational and speech therapy and then put together about 200 “therapy kits” for families.

They secured donations from an anonymous donor, then drove around the city to deliver the kits.

Children’s Clinics will reopen slowly over the next several months, but Thomas thinks telehealth will continue to play a role.

“We take care of 6,000 kids all together,” Thomas says. “Telehealth has made access to care much easier, especially for families in rural areas.”

Adiba Nelson’s 11-year-old daughter Emory has been visiting Children’s Clinics for the last nine years and has seen a lot of success since beginning telehealth.

“It’s actually been really really great because some of the things we had wanted to work on, especially with occupational therapy, were things for basic living activities — brushing your teeth, feeding yourself, putting on makeup,” Nelson says. “Being here at home made it really feasible to be able to actively work on those things.”

Nelson says she would feel comfortable going back to the clinic — and that Emory has always enjoyed the clinic — but says virtual services can sometimes be more convenient.

“It’s nice to have the option to do it from home,” she says.


Arizona Youth Partnership provides programming designed to prevent and solve local issues such as substance abuse, youth homelessness, lack of educational opportunities, teen pregnancy, and challenging family dynamics.

Many of the organization’s programs — including drug diversion and help with teen pregnancies — are now being taught through platforms like Google Classroom and YouTube.

Though the shift to online services has resulted in a decline in engagement for various providers, the opposite has been true for Arizona Youth Partnership’s Starting Out Right teen pregnancy program.

“It’s been a real pivot for us, but I think it’s going to change the way a lot of things are delivered where access is a problem, or youth can’t get transportation but can use a phone or Google Classroom or a Zoom meeting,” says Julie Glass, director of development.

“Our staff have been really, really innovative in the way they’ve thought to do this,” she says.

The organization also has three youth shelters in Arizona that have stayed open. Glass says all of the youth and staff have remained healthy.


Before the pandemic hit, the Tucson Museum of Art would “rely heavily on in-person programs,” says Marianna Pegno, curator of community engagement.

The museum had just started collaborating with Owl & Panther, an organization that works with refugee families, and was only one week into an art program before having to cancel.

“(Lutheran Social Services and Owl & Panther) mentioned that a lot of their families don’t have access to reliable internet, but they’re looking for ways to stay engaged with these families — and I was looking for ways to keep doing the programs that we promised,” Pegno says.

So Pegno started brainstorming art kit ideas.

Her first batch of 40 kits, expected to be delivered through Lutheran Social Services and Owl & Panther soon, helps people create their own sketchbooks. Plus, there will be prompts for 30 activities that can be done in the book when it’s all put together.

Although the Tucson Museum of Art is still closed, its collections are searchable online and there are YouTube versions of museum tours.

“I think people are excited that there’s still opportunities to see the art,” Pegno says, adding that she thinks people are “looking for that creative pause in all this.”


Nonprofits locally and around the country have traditionally relied on fundraising events, grants and the support of businesses and individual donations; however, the pandemic has taken a toll on those efforts.

The Community Foundation for Southern Arizona has created the COVID-19 Community Support Fund and the COVID-19 Event Relief Fund to provide general operating support to Pima County and Santa Cruz County nonprofits serving Arizona’s most vulnerable residents.

For more information on the fund, to apply for assistance or to donate, go to

Contact reporter Gloria Knott at or 573-4235. On Twitter: @gloriaeknott

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