The Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program Continues to Support Rural Communities Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic 

Image of a person unloading groceries from a colorfully decorated bus

UWPRC staff connected with Wally Orzechowski, the Executive Director of Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program (SWCAP) to discuss how the anti-poverty organization is responding to the needs of rural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

SWCAP, incorporated in Dodgeville, Wisconsin in 1966, serves five rural counties in southwestern Wisconsin to deliver and support anti-poverty resources and programs to low-income families. SWCAP is one of 16 Community Action Agencies a part of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association (WISCAP). These 16 organizations exist to help people get out of and stay out of poverty. These agencies provide services and coordinate community resources to their local population. SWCAP works to address the daily challenges families in poverty face and helps lift families out of poverty, all while addressing the unique needs of people living in rural areas. SWCAP is one of a few organizations in southwestern Wisconsin that supports and delivers programs to address poverty.   

SWCAP addresses the needs of low-income families through housing, healthcare, dental, food security, addiction, and mental health programs. In total, SWCAP is operating over a dozen programs across Iowa, Grant, Green, Lafayette, and Richland counties. To deliver these programs, they use three different approaches: providing services directly to families, developing programs and empowering other organizations to deliver them, and partnering with local organizations to deliver services. In last few years, SWCAP has been very successful in expanding their services by obtaining additional funding streams.  

Continuing Critical Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic  

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, SWCAP had to dramatically adjust the way they were providing services and programs. While some programs are temporarily suspended, SWCAP staff were concerned about providing transportation, housing, and food to families. These are services that families depend on and are critical to continue during the pandemic. Program directors and staff have minimized contact with families as much as possible while still meeting the urgent and ongoing needs of community members. 

The housing and healthcare needs of the rural families SWCAP serves have not stopped and in some instances have grown. SWCAP had to quickly assess the safety and health of staff while ensuring families were getting the services they needed. The organization has continued to provide transportation to essential health services such as dialysis and chemotherapy, provide housing for people who are homeless or in addiction treatment programs, and respond to food insecurity. SWCAP created a pop-up food pantry by remodeling a bus that makes regular stops across the five counties SWCAP serves. At the time of this interview, the mobile food pantry had made over one thousand visits to communities across southwestern Wisconsin.  

Addressing Changes in Community Needs as a Result of the COVID-19 Pandemic  

 During the COVID-19 pandemic, SWCAP staff have seen an increase in mental health needs of rural community members, particularly among agricultural workers. They have responded by focusing resources on the growing mental health needs of farmers and people living in rural areas.

As a member organization of the Wisconsin Community Action Program Association, SWCAP is assisting renters to ensure no one losing housing because of income loss due to the pandemic. SWCAP is using Wisconsin Rental Assistance Program (WRAP) funds to help those in Grant, Green, Iowa, Lafayette, and Richland counties negatively impacted by COVID-19 and struggling to pay rent or a security deposit. To be eligible for this program, applicants must be an adult Wisconsin resident with a household income at or below 80 percent of their county median income in the month of or month prior to their application date. Once approved, eligible applicants may receive up to $3,000 in a combination of rental payments and/or security deposits, which will be paid directly to the landlord on behalf of the tenant.  

SWCAP Advocates for the Unique Needs of Rural Communities  

Orzechowski says it is important for researchers to learn about the unique needs of rural communities. The engagement SWCAP and researchers are doing with rural communities during COVID-19 now will inform how to work with rural communities when we eventually have a vaccine. While all previously offered programs and services will eventually begin again, we should keep in mind the needs of rural communities as the state re-opens. In addition to re-starting programming and services, SWCAP is working on creating 32 units of housing along with a community center for farm workers, the first of its kind in the state, to address their unique needs. The UWPRC is looking forward to seeing how SWCAP will continue to respond to the needs of rural families experiencing poverty and grow their programming. We are proud to be a partner of this wonderful organization.