MADISON (WKOW) -- People across Wisconsin have lost homes, livelihoods and loved ones to the pandemic. It's taken its toll on the well-being of our community.
"We've all been impacted," said Matida Bojang. "People are lonely and people are depressed and people are going through really, really tough things."
Bojang is there to help whoever she can. The UW-Milwaukee college student has spent the pandemic working for Project Recovery.
"We help people with coping skills. We provide compassionate and non-judgmental support. We help people come up with sustainable solutions for their problems and we're just kind of here to guide people," she told 27 News.
Bojang is inspired to help people with their mental health after seeing challenges and stigmas for her community in the west African country of The Gambia, where she was born and raised. She applied to become a Project Recovery counselor to bring her diverse perspective to southern Wisconsin.
"I would like to serve black and brown communities because those communities are the ones that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And I think that having someone who looks like you, who understands some of your struggles, is super important," she said. "I know that there's actually like a scarcity, I guess, of black therapists and counselors and it's really hard to find someone like that to talk to, so I want to be there as a resource for people from a similar background."
Bojang now leads the Dane County team for Project Recovery.
"Very diverse team, lots of people with different life experiences, and we all have this one goal of helping people through these very challenging times," she said.
Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin got a $1 million grant to hire 25 counselors in total.
"We have folks with lived experience, folks who lost their job, folks who had been in social work, schools, or other things. So, it was just an absolute privilege to be able to recruit such an amazing, diverse team," said Amber Duddy, CAC's executive director.
Growing need for services
The counselors take calls and offer support or help connect people with resources like those offered at CAC.
CAC had to double its services in 2020 to meet a growing demand for help. The food bank went from distributing 2-3 million pounds of food in 2019 to more than 5 million during the pandemic, helping 10-20,000 people a month.
The organization doubled its grants to prevent homelessness and took more than 7,000 applications for rental assistance.
This isn't the first time a Project Recovery team has formed to help people cope during crisis. FEMA also funded a team in Dane County after the historic flooding of 2018.
Aiming to help long-term
Leaders don't expect to be able to cut back to previous levels of service any time soon.
"We see the pandemic lasting through 2023, very easily, and so we expect this elevated doubling of demand through 2023," Duddy told 27 News.
So when the FEMA funding runs out in June, CAC will work to redistribute their resources to continue helping the community.
"All of the resources that we've been finding with Project Recovery, we're also putting on a website for anyone to find, and so we're trying to keep that education and that awareness that we've gained there," she said.
Bojang hopes to keep helping as long as she can. After graduation this spring, she's going to medical school and hopes to keep focusing on mental health issues back home.
"I plan to incorporate some of the skills that I have attained from this job and help people overseas," Bojang said.
If you need help connecting witih resources, understanding what's going on with the pandemic, or coping with loss and uncertainty, you can contact Project Recovery online or by calling 211 and asking for the Project Recovery team.