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Harmony House adjusts without Dragon Boat Race event

By: Hunter Riggall 

If it weren’t for COVID-19, local domestic violence shelter Harmony House would be putting on one of the biggest events of the summer this weekend — the West Point Dragon Boat Race. The event typically draws a crowd of 2,500-3,000 and raises more than $40,000 for the shelter.

Executive Director Michele Bedingfield said they explored a variety of options to hold the event in a safe way, but it just wasn’t doable.

“We looked at all the dynamics for how to hold this event safely, but the community’s health was more important,” Bedingfield said.

The event has taken place annually for four years and is the biggest fundraising event of the year for the shelter. Typically, 30 teams of 21 compete to be the fastest boat in human-powered boats. Apart from the cash raised from the race, Bedingfield said it also helps with applying for grants as it allows Harmony House to demonstrate its connection with the community.

Harmony House recently created a West Point Lake Dragon Boat Race t-shirt to raise funds. The long-sleeve shirts are made of a lightweight, breathable and sun-protective Omni-wick fabric. They cost $25, and the first order has already sold out, and more are on the way.

Aside from the loss of fundraising, Bedingfield laments the lack of the event, which she said brings together a variety of people from different backgrounds, as well as businesses and churches.

“It’s just a really great people event,” she said. “From the hard-working, blue-collar people to the elected officials, judges, housewives, students.”

Bedingfield doesn’t expect the shirts to bring in as much revenue as the race would have, but she hopes they can recoup some of the lost fundraising. The shelter is also facing loss of revenue due to state budget cuts associated with the economic downturn.

But the pandemic hasn’t just affected the boat race. Harmony House has seen a 52% increase in crisis calls since the country went into lockdown in March, with many of the shelter’s clients confined to their home.

“You have to shelter in place with someone who’s abusive to you,” Bedingfield said.

Not all of these calls are about immediate danger — many people just need to vent. But since March, Harmony House has moved 32 families into alternate housing.

This alternate housing serves as an intermediary between the abusive household and a new living situation. Harmony House brings food and supplies while having the victim monitor their own health. When Harmony House interacts with clients, masks and social distancing are utilized.

Services, though “have not skipped a beat,” Bedingfield said. She praised the counselors the shelter workers for being flexible about communicating remotely, as well as partners Action Ministries and Circles of Troup County. She’s also thankful for her own staff for meeting the challenges of COVID-19. The United Way-affiliated shelter is approaching its 15th anniversary in October.

“I consider my staff front-line workers — they’re 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” Bedingfield said. I’m very fortunate for the team that I work with.”