Quarantales #7: Kate Garvey Juggles 50 Service Organizations on Alexandria’s COVID Frontlines and Trims Her Own Hair!

“So many of the individuals and families we serve are making their own contributions to the community, as parents, as front- line workers, as caring neighbors.”

Who knew Kate was such a Steelers fan? Read her story to find out more. (Photo courtesy of Kate Garvey).

Stories from Alexandrians that will make you smile. We hope.

ALEXANDRIA, VA – Kate Garvey is the director of the Department of Community and Human Services in Alexandria, Virginia. Among her other jobs, she convenes the COVID-19 Community Resource Planning team, a group of over 50 service organizations that work together to assist those in need during the pandemic.

Everyone wants to know how you get your bangs to look so good in Zoom meetings.

(Laughs). That is insane! I’m a habitual bangs trimmer. I have been trimming all through the pandemic. I have no secret. I just blow dry my hair. That is too funny!

There’s hope for all of us. That’s good news. So what’s the best news you’ve heard this week?

That so many people applied for rental assistance. Most applications came from the West End and Arlandria where the need is the greatest. That tells me that word is getting to the right people.

DCHS staff and community volunteers work with Alive!, Volunteer Alexandria and World Central Kitchen to provide food and prepared meals to the community. (Photo courtesy of the City of Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services)

Tell me about the COVID-19 Community Resource Planning team. How did it start?

We started by thinking how we could respond the most rapidly and effectively. We asked questions like, “Who’s doing what? How can we build it on that and get more of it? What’s out there already?” The initial focus was on food and financial assistance then expanded the scope of the group. Now we have about 50 people on the Friday call. It’s been tremendous. They are doers from the faith, nonprofit, school, and the city. It’s all people who make things happen. When they see a problem they figure out how to solve it or who can solve it. It’s “so Alexandria.” That’s part of why I love being here. People are always ready to find a solution.

What’s an unusual surprise you’ve learned from leading the COVID group?

How many wonderful people can sew! We’ve heard from so many groups asking what they can do or contribute. It’s like listening to Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy character when he says, “Let’s put on a show!” They make it happen and they know that they will directly assist someone. Some groups make 600 masks and some make 10 and it all counts. And these groups grow organically. The more we know the needs, the more these groups help out.

Since our first interview, the Alexandria community, along with the entire country, is grieving the killing of George Floyd. How has that affected your work?

It has had a profound impact on the sense of well-being and safety of our staff and those we serve. The level of grief and anger that is being experienced is devastating. What his murder and those of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery tell us is that there is no real place of safety for black and brown people, and the impact of systemic racism drives the inequities that pervade our community. And our country. We are working to address those inequities through the services we provide and by focusing on racial equity in our department and across the City. We have much work to do.

You are insanely busy. How do you keep any semblance of a work-life balance?

I’ve never been great at it but I try. I try to take time on Saturdays to do a five mile walk my dog. Lilly and listen to music and try to decompress.

Speaking of work, what was your first job? 

My first real job after babysitting was being a waitress at Howard Johnson’s. I was 15. It taught me a tremendous amount and I learned a lot, even though I had to wear brown polyester. And they had great ice cream.

Did you like being a waitress?

I was a terrible waitress. I could never remember orders but I was friendly and got good tips, and so the manager asked me to train the other waitresses, even the ones who were better than me. People just want people to be kind to them, at Howard Johnson’s and everywhere else. That’s how I was raised.

Kate (far left) learned teamwork and customer service as a Howard Johnson’s waitress in Pittsburgh back in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Kate Garvey).

There’re no HoJos around here. Where did you grow up?

I’m a Pittsburgher. And as BIG Steeler fan!

Do you a have a Terrible Towel?

You better believe it! You can’t say you’re a Steeler fan without a Terrible Towel.

That’s a brave thing to say in this part of the country. Maybe we should switch back to your COVID-19 work. How can people help?

Keep supporting the nonprofit partners and respond to their needs. Also, to recognize that while people need help, they also have something to offer. Sometimes they can be viewed as “less than” or a drag on our community, when really they are foundational to the strength of our community.

And we still need masks and cleaning supplies and thermometers and we will need them for a while. If anyone or any group wants to contribute, they can call DCHS at (703) 746-5700. These groups who have helped us so far have been amazing!

When this eases up you need a vacation. Where are you going?

To Queechy Lake in Berkshires. It’s my favorite place to go. I’ve gone there all my life. It’s quiet and I get to hang out with my family and nieces and nephews and don’t wear shoes. My mom went there as a teenager. It has so many happy memories for me and I relax instantly when I get there.

So you’re the fun aunt. What are you famous for?

I buy them the most elaborate, huge floats so the kids can all hang out on them in the middle of the lake. The biggest float I ever got them seats 12 and actually has a little pool area inside of it. Sometimes the kids strap together three or four floats in middle of lake and jump off, and I’ve even pulled them in my kayak. Really.

READ MORE INTERVIEWS IN THE QUARANTALES SERIES