Kristen Miller-Hahn knows the community gets stronger when everyone works together. That’s why the Jermyn resident, a mother of two and licensed clinical social worker, launched NEPA Strong on Facebook around the same time Gov. Tom Wolf announced the initial shutdowns in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Less than a year later, it’s helped countless people in innumerable ways. Here’s what Miller-Hahn had to say about the past and future of NEPA Strong.
Q: When did you launch NEPAStrong and what was your inspiration?
A: I started the group NEPA Strong on the first day of the stay at home orders. During that time, in scrolling my social media outlets and reading the hardships and fears, I felt inspired to create a space where community members and business owners could come together in an online, easily accessible platform to empower, support and promote one another. My initial hope when the group started was to be able to raise funds to purchase meals from local businesses and then provide them to community members in need or essential employees.
Q: How has it changed or grown since you first began?
A: Since the group’s formation, we have grown to more then 8,900 members. We have also expanded on our initiatives to include online auctions, member giveaways, donation drives, collaborations and partnerships with businesses and nonprofit organizations and weekly features within the group.
The success of the group has been humbling. The stories you hear, the emails you receive and the help offered is truly incredible. Prior to starting the group, I felt the need for a space to come together but I never imagined how many people would utilize it or the true impact it could have.
Q: What are some of the biggest accomplishments of NEPA Strong so far?
A: Some of the biggest accomplishments of NEPA Strong have been our online auctions. Each auction takes true dedication from those involved to complete — from gathering donations, sending emails, creating images and adding the text, promoting, organizing, monitoring, etc. Our auctions have provided Easter meals and baskets, hoagies to the community, cookie trays to hospitals, support to local businesses.
Our most recent partnership is with Anthracite Events with the goal of purchasing restaurant gift cards for veterans. We also raised money during the holidays and because of the generous donations from business owners, group members, and Hooked on State Street we provided 2,500 meals/soup to those in need.
Our Holiday Guides & Giveaways were also an accomplishment we worked diligently to complete and felt they were a success. Reflecting on the past year, I realize there have been so many individual moments, donations and givebacks — whether large scale or small, for individuals or families. I am equally grateful and thankful to have been a part of facilitating that.
With each donation, I have been grateful to receive help and encouragement as well as ideas for new initiatives or donations to keep the group moving forward and innovative. Tara Corrigan and Ruzhka Raynova have been involved since early spring and an asset as administrators on the page. I am grateful for their support and also for the members who have helped when able, and for those who have volunteered to run a weekly feature for businesses, shopping threads or person of the week.
Q: What are some of your goals for the coming year?
A: At this time, my goals and the group goals for the current year are to continue to adapt and bridge the gap for those in need while creating a sense of community. To continue to promote businesses and support community members to the best of our ability through the use of online auctions and in person events as able. I believe the impact of COVID-19 will last beyond the return to a new normal and it will be crucial to continue to provide a free platform and creative ways to promote businesses and identify available resources.
Q: It seems like more and more people are realizing the importance of shopping and supporting local. Why is it important to you and to the group?
A: Shopping local, as it has been said, supports a dream and a family. When you shop local, you have the opportunity to hear the story behind the business and see the impact of each sale. You are creating relationships, strengthening the community and supporting the businesses who continually support the causes within the community. In NEPA, we have incredible small businesses and restaurants. We are lucky for the diversity, creativity and craftsmanship they provide. If we wish to continue to have that here in northeast PA we need to continue to support them in order to see them through this pandemic and beyond.