By Collin Breaux | Email: cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com | Twitter: @collin_breaux

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, students would visit the grounds of Mission San Juan Capistrano to view and learn about the historic grounds. They received tutoring at the CREER facilities near Stonefield Park. They and others rode horses at the J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center.

The global health crisis has changed all of that. The Mission has been closed during the pandemic. The Shea Center is mostly empty these days, except for staff who look after the horses and maintain the area. CREER has been busy distributing food on Tuesdays to the community at a time when the economic fallout hits hard for some.

Volunteers with CREER distribute food to the needy during the 2020 pandemic. Photo: Collin Breaux

They have pivoted to digital outreach efforts and turned to government assistance for funding to survive and to continue their goals of helping and educating the community.

A big percentage of the Mission’s business came from visitors, but they aren’t coming during the shutdown. The good news, though, is the Mission has supporters whom Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams has spoken with about funding options. Supporters have been offered the chance to make donations.

Mission San Juan Capistrano has been closed during the pandemic. It is usually full of visitors and activity. Photo: Collin Breaux

The Mission has also received funding from the Small Business Administration, and has applied for other funding. The estimated financial impact of the pandemic on the Mission is more than $1 million, including ticket refunds for canceled events just under $500,000. Adams, though, said the Mission won’t go bankrupt.

In the meantime, the Mission has developed an online version of their store that offers curbside service.

“I’m not keen on illegally opening a store,” Adams said.

They’ve also established a Digital Resource Center on their website that offers a video tour of the grounds. As for the students and teachers who used to take field trips to the historic site, Mission leadership is reaching out to teachers to plan Zoom video sessions and other online educational resources.

The COVID-19 crisis has pushed Mission leadership to be creative with current operations. When the grounds will reopen remains unknown. Adams said a reopening plan will prioritize safety for everyone and may change up some aspects, such as some exhibit rooms no longer being open and the possibility of guided tours not happening. Mission leadership is asking supporters what aspects of a reopening they would like to see, including the wearing of masks and the frequency of surfaces being wiped down.

The Mission does have an audio tour, though.

“People always want to come to the Mission, so I don’t feel threatened digitally,” Adams said. “I think we’re going to get back into business. We’re going to be clever and creative.”

Adams sees the Mission as a strong entity that’s gone through changes before, and everything they do has an emotional connection with the community. The crisis also takes a human toll when it comes to furloughing employees, including those who have been at the Mission for 50 years, Adams said.

Dana Butler-Moburg, Executive Director for The Shea Center, said the best-case scenario is a decline of at least 40 percent in revenue, which comes largely from special events.

“Our gala and two smaller events have been canceled this year, but we have created a program called Stand With Shea in which donors are able to make the gifts they would normally make to our events and be celebrated for their investment to The Shea Center,” Butler-Morburg said. “Stand With Shea is a fundraising program that has tangible benefits for our donor partners that include being on the Pandemic Relief Donor Wall at Shea.”

Among the nonprofit’s major sponsors, Bill and Jenny Klein offered a matching challenge grant of $100,000 that was met within a few days. Immediately, The Offield Family Foundation put a $125,000 matching challenge grant on the table that is now close to filling.  More matching grants are expected. 

While on-site client services and weekly volunteerism are on hold, Shea Center staff members have transitioned to telehealth services.

“Our non-medical services—our adaptive riding services—are being shared with clients via Zoom.  Instructors have a curriculum that includes horsemanship, strength building and other knowledge that will help our clients do better in this environment when they return,” Butler-Morburg said. “For some of our clients, telehealth or tele-wellness services may not be appropriate.  We’ve done several hundred hours of ‘visits,’ where we reach out, engage and connect with our families and clients.”

People must wear face coverings when visiting The Shea Center grounds. The response from clients to their work during the pandemic has reportedly been terrific.

“What our families and volunteers tell us is in one phrase, ‘Hope and help,’ ” Butler-Morburg said. “We have always provided these things, but now, more than ever, we are so focused on our clients’ well-being.  We are also keenly aware of helping families be able to respond to the needs of their loved ones.”

The Shea Center has been empty during the pandemic. Clients are still receiving telehealth services. Photo: Collin Breaux

Shea Center staff is unsure about what September’s BBQ event on-site will bring, but they are proceeding with multiple scenarios and seeing which one is the most appropriate for the time.  Butler-Morburg said the safety of staff, clients and partners is first and foremost, emphasizing they will find a way to have a joy-filled fundraising celebration in September, though certain it will look different than prior years.

“The Shea Center serves an incredibly vulnerable and underserved population,” Butler-Moburg said. “Children and adults with special needs have an extra challenge during these COVID-19 times to get the services they need to remain strong.”

Angeles Ceballos, Executive Director of CREER, said they’ve been severely impacted as a small nonprofit organization, forcing them to place their vital educational programs on hold.

“In the early weeks of the stay-at-home orders, we spent our day texting, emailing, and posting information about the crisis in both English and Spanish.  It was during these early weeks that we received constant pleas for help about food pantries,” Ceballos said. “We also received several calls from distressed parents about help to pay bills.  We directed them to the available resources, but soon these resources were overwhelmed and unable to meet the demand of families in distress.”

CREER opened a food pantry in partnership with OCC Food Recovery Kitchen and established an emergency fund to help families. A long line of cars formed on Tuesday, May 12, as volunteers packed food in vehicle trunks.

“We at CREER had to close all of our educational programs, and this has caused extreme financial hardship to our organization,” Ceballos said. “We exist on donations, grants, fundraisers, and small tuition fees that are directly linked to these programs.  If we do not have programs, we cannot generate income.”

CREER has received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding. Ceballos thanked the City of San Juan Capistrano, The Ecology Center and others for their help and food pantry donations.

“One thing is certain in the future, the CREER educational programs will be as vital, if not more vital, when the COVID-19 crisis is over and children return to school,” Ceballos said. “We will be here to help with their education!”

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