Peak COVID-19 hospitalization was quickly approaching in Little Rock, Arkansas. The local medical community realized they were reaching a critical personal protective equipment shortage, with face shields top of the list.
Larry Whitman, dean of engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, found a medically approved 3D model for a face shield online, and he sought ways to source its production. He reached out for help.
To ensure medical-grade usage, CHI St. Vincent chief medical officer, Dr. Gerry Jones was brought in to approve the prototype.
Now how to print? Little Rock schools superintendent Michael Poore agreed to share the district's 3D printers that weren't being used during the school closure.
Local plastic company Mr. Plastic provided plastic sheeting to fit into the headband prototype. An ingenious local solution was forged, but couldn't be scaled up to meet the total need.
So a local firm, Schueck Steel, stepped in to make the headbands in mass quantities out of aluminum and supplemented much of the cost of the total effort with its own funds.
Over 500 sheets of plastic were found for sale in Houston, then shipped to Kansas City to be die cut. Arkansas-based Sage V Foods was looking for a way to give back to the community and made a generous donation to help cover the cost.
Within four days of the issue being raised, 200 3D printed face shields were in use locally. Within 10 days, more than 4,000 aluminum face shields were distributed. Five hundred went to each of the six hospitals in the area and the rest to first responders.
Who facilitated each step in this local effort? Not government. Not a national health foundation. The Little Rock Regional Chamber.
There are more than 6,500 chambers of commerce across the U.S. Most people associate chambers with small business support. And chambers are a dependable local lifeline for small businesses fighting to keep their doors open through COVID-19.
Chambers nationwide have set up small business hotlines; there have been thousands of chamber-led webinars on how to navigate CARES Act resources and Small Business Administration loans; and some chambers have procured and administered gap loans and grants to infuse cash into local businesses—among countless other innovative initiatives.
To date, more than one million small businesses have been approved for the Paycheck Protection Program in the recent CARES Act.
This highly beneficial loan can be forgiven if the organization meets certain criteria. This is a much-needed resource helping to keep businesses afloat.
While chambers are front and center serving their communities through this crisis, they are left out of receiving PPP funds. Other nonprofits are eligible, but those registered with the IRS as 501(c)(6) groups—which most chambers of commerce are—were excluded.
This puts chambers of commerce in the position of fighting for their communities and providing critical support in the fight against COVID-19, while facing business-threatening financial impacts of their own, due to shrinking membership dues and canceled events that have cleared calendars and undermined critical sources of revenue.
America's chambers of commerce are locating the lifeboats so their members can navigate the way forward for their employees, customers, and business partners, but they can't climb in.
This needs to change—and it can.
Our members across the U.S. are imploring the administration and congressional leaders to include chambers and other nonprofit 501(c)(6) organizations in the next COVID-19 aid package so they, and we, are eligible for federal stimulus dollars.
That way, your own local chamber of commerce can connect and empower the arsenal of recovery in ways large and small, just like they did in Little Rock.
About the author: Sheree Anne Kelly is president and CEO of the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives in Alexandria, Virginia.