As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading through New York City in March, Debrah Lee Charatan knew that her original vision for Selfhelp’s annual fundraising gala wouldn’t come to fruition. 

Before the shutdowns started, the night had been pitched as a time for (in-person) conversation, celebration, and good company. The team at Selfhelp had picked out a beautiful venue: Pier Sixty, an oceanfront event space with dazzling nighttime views of the Hudson River. Attendees would have a chance to listen to speakers, participate in an awards ceremony, and enjoy an evening meal and cocktails. 

It would have been a wonderful event, even more so because it supported a worthy cause. The funds raised during the gala would go to support Selfhelp’s mission to promote independent living by providing a range of community-based services to New York’s most vulnerable seniors.

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But amid a global pandemic, gathering donors into an in-person event space would have been remarkably ill-advised -- and in poor taste, especially given that the gala was meant to support at-risk seniors. 

“We knew that the gala we had planned would be impossible to execute during the pandemic,” event chair Debrah Lee Charatan reflected. “At that point, we had to ask ourselves -- did we want to do a virtual gala? Should we do a virtual gala?” 

Virtual events have, by a sheer lack of alternatives, become popular during the pandemic. Statistics shared by the digital event planner 6Connex indicate that virtual events are up a whopping 1,000 percent since COVID-19 made its debut in March. These digital gatherings are often elaborate; rather than simply broadcasting the main speaker, virtual event providers facilitate small group conversations, networking “lobbies,” and digital exhibition spaces. 

There is a clear precedent for virtual event-replacements. But, in the end, the Selfhelp team decided to opt-out of doing the gala altogether. 

“We ultimately decided that in this time of crisis, we couldn’t redirect resources from the people who needed them the most: our clients and staff. Planning an event, even a virtual one, seemed like an ill-advised allocation of the funds we did have,” Debrah Lee Charatan explained. 

“Selfhelp serves the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19 -- the elderly, ill, and survivors -- and we had to think about how we could protect and support them through a period of unprecedented hardship.”

Debrah Lee Charatan’s perspective dovetails with Selfhelp’s stated mission and practice. For over 80 years, the nonprofit has provided an extensive list of community-based offerings to at-risk seniors in New York City. The organization currently delivers home health care services, affordable housing support, and other community-centric programs to over 20,000 clients, 4,800 of whom are Holocaust survivors. 

Selfhelp has faced unprecedented challenges during COVID-19; since the pandemic began, a significant subset of its clients have endured financial hardship and needed assistance to gain access to food, housing, and medical care. Selfhelp’s cohort of 1,6000 frontline home health aides and guardianship workers also required PPE resources and support to care for the nonprofit’s vulnerable clients. 

As Debrah Lee Charatan recounts: “We were acutely aware of both our limited resources and the needs of our clients and staffers. A virtual gala was out, but we began considering the idea of a virtual fundraising campaign. I was a little hesitant at first -- with everything so uncertain, it didn’t seem to be the best time to solicit funds. But once we began, I was blown away by the generosity and care our donors showed.”

Selfhelp’s fundraising campaign riffed on the canceled gala in its acronym; the nonprofit titled it Giving Assistance, Leading with Action (GALA). The campaign raised over two million dollars between early April and the end of June. 

Those funds were both deeply appreciated and well-used; thus far, GALA contributions have been deployed to provide essential relief to Holocaust survivors and other at-risk elderly, fund one-month rent stipends, buy lifesaving PPE for Selfhelp’s healthcare staff, and connect home care workers to alternative forms of transportation and affordable childcare. All of these measures are crucial during a pandemic. 

“We need to do all that we can to help our vulnerable seniors and the healthcare heroes who care for them,” Debrah Lee Charatan says. “It is awe-inspiring to see what people can accomplish when they pull together for a cause.”