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Out rugby player and social worker ‘sees the emotional effect of this pandemic’

Coronavirus impact: Taylor Vanderlaan is on the frontline helping people in need and LGBTQ youth at risk.

Taylor Vanderlaan
Photo by Austin Coyer

Outsports is asking LGBTQ people in sports how they are impacted by the coronavirus crisis and its effects on all aspects of daily life. Today: Rugby player Taylor Vanderlaan. He identifies as gay.

I was hired into my position as a social worker at North Kent Connect in Michigan in late February. This was the perfect job for me — I was able to advocate for various issues affecting my community, directly meet and help people every day in an organization who fully embraced and sought opportunity in my LGBTQ+ status and work.

I was a week into the job when talk of the coronavirus started. By the end of the second week we were implementing new policies and procedures, including cutting numerous volunteers, converting our food pantry to a curbside system and moving all other functions and programs to a phone based service. Quickly, our days became packaging food and standing outside ensuring our community had food to feed their families.

Over the past few weeks, we have served thousands of people. We handed out food to almost 400 people in one day alone. Many of those people we regularly serve are elderly citizens on fixed incomes.

Now we are seeing families where one or both household caregivers are losing their job. Many of these families are having to use a food pantry for the first time because workers are having to stay home. A family already living paycheck-to-paycheck can’t simply or suddenly adapt their budget to fit an unemployment check.

Despite a massive increase in families needing our help, we’ve had to cut down the number of staff available to help them. We’ve been working with a skeleton crew of about seven people. Many of these tasks are not in our job titles either. I’m in the back of the warehouse packaging food with the executive director, and then standing outside with the other social workers, distributing food to hundreds families.

I’ve quickly realized, though, that we aren’t just handing people food. We greet them with a friendly smile, we look into their eyes, they are saddened, but still smiling. We see why they are there. We see it. We feel it. It takes a great deal of courage and humility for someone to come to us, a food pantry, for help feeding their family.

We greet their courage with dignity. We see the emotional effect of this pandemic. My job is not just about making sure this community gets food, but also the comfort of knowing someone is here to help.

Aside from packaging and serving food, our phone has been ringing nonstop from community members who still need assistance with other issues. Even though the coronavirus has postponed so much, people are still facing issues, such as housing insecurity, domestic violence and mental health. It’s our job to try to help them.

These people are scared, confused, and unsure. When they call, our job becomes selling them hope. Sometimes folks just need to hear, and more importantly believe, they are being taken care of, that they are not alone, and they are going to be OK.

Essential workers do go home, though. I still have other people to take care of who are impacted by this virus. The LGBTQ+ youth group I help lead has moved online.

I, along with other dedicated, hardworking volunteers at the Grand Rapids Pride Center, have been using apps like Zoom and Discord to try and reach our kids. We already know statistics are not in their favor.

LGBTQ identifying youth already face higher rates of abuse, mental health neglect and familial discord than that of their peers. Our weekly night group was these kids’ only time to feel safe. We are trying to make online mental health checkins as available as possible for these kids while also maintaining our own mental health.

I am very bummed about my college alumni rugby game being canceled. This was going to be my first alumni game as an alumnus. I was excited to get back into rugby after taking the last year and a half off. I know after this is all done and over with, I’ll be more grateful stepping back on the pitch.

When a crisis like this hits our county, historically we see the best and worst in people. There was, and still is, a bit of humanity being forgotten with the coronavirus pandemic. But over the last few weeks I have experienced more love, more compassion, and more patience from people than ever.

People we give food to try and donate their last dollar, bring us baked goods, or even try to volunteer. People want to help and give back in some way with whatever they have. What’s happening right now is challenging. I want people to know it is OK to ask for help. It is OKto accept help. More importantly, it’s OK to help others. There’s no reason it should take a pandemic like the coronavirus for people to see that.

Taylor Vanderlaan is an LGBTQ+ advocate and a former collegiate rugby player. He works as a community social worker in Grand Rapids, Mich., and is the regional board member for You Can Play. He received his Bachelors of Social Work from Ferris State University. He can be reached via Facebook, Instagram or email (Taylor.vanderlaan@grpride.org).

Read Taylor’s coming out story.

Join LGBTQ athletes and mental-health professionals Taylor Vanderlaan and KC Cross for Outsports webinar: Maintaining mental health in isolation. The webinar is Tuesday, April 7, 7 p.m. ET. Find registration and more information by clicking here.

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell us how the coronavirus crisis has affected your life, email Jim Buzinski (kandreeky@gmail.com).