When the world went into lockdown in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, one Stoughton-nonprofit responded to help those who were impacted the most.

The Stoughton Area Resource Team, which helps adults under age 55 meet basic needs like food and housing, is “now needed more than ever” in its two decades of operation, executive director Cindy Thompson told the Hub. Over the last 11 and a half months, START has provided direct financial aid to 179 households struggling with loss of income, having to take care of sick loved ones and other necessities. That is up more than 20% from 2019. And 142 of the 179 participants in 2020 had never used START services before.

And to commemorate the last 20 years, START is holding at least three mini-fundraisers that will all be COVID-19 friendly, Thompson said. The first is the Love START yard signs, which Thompson said this is meant to create awareness about the organization around Stoughton.

The rest of the fundraisers are still in the planning stages, Thompson said, but whatever the fundraisers are will be virtual or safe alternatives to celebrating in person. And overall, she hopes that it will help adults in the community know that START is there for them — even after the pandemic.

But for now, START staff and volunteers have been helping clients go beyond the scope of normal strategies and operations, Thompson said.

With in-home visits being limited, START has had over 480 total virtual visits, meeting with some households several times, to connect people with resources, like housing support from UnitedWay, Thompson said.

One of the ways START helps its clients is pairing up people with case managers who can set goals with them like getting a GED and then connect them to the resources – like Madison Area Technical College – to make that happen.

“Our focus is on providing that stability and safety net for the people within our community that need it, and almost everyone that has been affected by COVID-19 in some sort of way,” Thompson said.

Thompson said case managers also act as client advocates, especially when it comes to often-complex issues like renter’s rights. For example, managers work to help make sure renters know the difference between an eviction moratorium or a rent freeze, Thompson said.

Over the past year, some of the START clients mentioned to their case managers they didn’t have beds, said Thompson. So Thompson and her team were able to deliver around 20 of them to people across the city. And when schools went virtual, the START team delivered backpacks filled with school supplies and masks.

“Our agency is very broad with what it is that we’re able to help with,” Thompson said. “We’re looking at the whole picture, so what is it that the family needs? What do the children need?”

This philosophy is what Thompson called “an open-door.” People can get support whenever they need it, for pretty much anything and leave when they feel ready.

A group of volunteers started the organization in 2001 to do just that – fill a gap in the community to meet any and all basic needs for adults. The Stoughton Area Senior Center works with seniors and has case managers on staff, but adults — including single adults — needed a support system, she said.

“START wants and needs to remain a vital resource in our community, even when we’re not in a state of emergency,” Thompson said.