Where Covid Left Holes, Volunteers Stepped In


When the needs of their communities changed in response to the pandemic, these neighbors offered to help.

Jennifer Harlan

In May, on the day of the heavy rain, Vanessa drove Frenchmen to her house in Makoti, N.D. She put a parcel on the carpet, rang the bell, and left. But it wasn’t a typical Ding-Dong: When their neighbors opened the door, they found a bag full of books.

Surprise on one. Mai! Vanessa Hallred.

At the height of the pandemic, 12-year-old Vanessa helped her community feel less alone.

Her desire to change her life with books for the better began two years ago when she saw a small free library box in a nearby town. There is no public library in Makoti, and the residents depend on the transportation of books from the neighborhood or on travelling tens of kilometers for the library services. The stand-alone model of the free library seemed to fit.

It was her idea, said Vanessa’s mother, Laura Fransen. I didn’t even know small, free libraries were one thing. And then we learned that this is a global, global phenomenon.

In 2018 Vanessa decorated the library on her city square. The next summer she added a communal garden, so that the inhabitants of Makoti could enjoy the view and snacks, together with a book.

That spring, when the coronavirus stopped everything, including the book car, Vanessa saw another chance to help.

After receiving a grant from Book One, one of ten organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases, Vanessa bought 160 books to distribute to more than 40 families in her community.

We tried to select books that could be useful to their families, said Mrs French, including cookbooks and postcard colouring books that people can send to their loved ones.

In August and October Vanessa worked again with the first book, this time aimed at the Makoti youth. She received a further 140 books through a non-profit organization; 90 of these were from the Magic Tree House series and were donated by writer Maria Pope, Osborne. She distributed them among the children in her community and also among the local school and the small free library.

Vanessa, who recently enrolled in Grade 7, hopes Osborne’s books, which combine history and adventure education, will help children feel less isolated.

What I like about reading is that it takes you to different places and that you learn something new, she says.

Miss French added: Now that everything is taught virtually, it is important that children have a tangible book in their hands.

Vanessa says it was especially helpful to know that she makes a difference where she lives.

Joyce Bryant and Virginia Moses, friends from Brooklyn who are both in their 70s, have joined this sentiment. They’re retired – Miss Bryant worked at home and Miss Moses in an electronics shop – but she’s not happy with her peace of mind.

Retirement isn’t just about sitting down, Miss Bryant said. You have to keep that spirit.

And those legs! Added Ms. Moses.

In 2018, Ms. Bryant and Ms. Moses helped organize the Farragut Food Club to ensure their Fort Greene community has access to fresh food at an affordable price, especially for those receiving the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program. The group is a cooperative that allows residents to order food from online shops and deliver it to Farragut Cornerstone, a community centre run by Brooklyn Community Services, one of the organisations supported by the Foundation.

When the city closed in March, Brooklyn utilities contacted Mrs. Bryant and Mrs. Moses, who helped identify people in need. Kent Victor, director of Farragut Cornerstone, said they helped the organisation distribute food to more than 1,500 families struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic.

It’s a miracle that people came together and showed love and care, Mrs Bryant said.

Bonnie and Ned Rogers, both 74, are also retired and help others. They were born and raised on Staten Island, met on a blind date in college and have been married for 52 years. In 2000, following her retirement from the telecommunications industry, Mrs. Rogers saw in her church newsletter the announcement of a retirement and senior volunteering program of the Society for Public Service, another organization supported by the Foundation.

Rogers: I wasn’t old enough to get involved back then, but I was allowed to be a kind of welcome volunteer.

Two years later, on the death of a friend and a fellow volunteer, the program asked Ms. Rogers if she could go on the Feeding on Wheels, a food aid program for seniors. Mr. Rogers joined the Company after his retirement in 2004 and since then they have worked together as a team.

You have a way of dealing with loyal people, and over time you build a relationship with them, Mr Rogers said. Many of our clients have gone home and look forward to working with such a person every day.

This relationship was suddenly interrupted by the pandemic. In March, the service switched to weekly deliveries of frozen products, instead of five days a week, with volunteers such as Mr. and Mrs. Rogers on the replacement bench.

We really missed it, Mr. Rogers. If we volunteer, we give, but we also get a lot. It’s not really altruism. It gives us a reason to be.

In May, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers returned to their Feeding on Wheels route when religious organizations found ways to adapt.

A couple were worried about people she hadn’t seen in weeks. But on their first day back they were happy to see many familiar faces. Thank you, the smile – even with masks – was beautiful, Miss Rogers said.

The couple hopes that the difficulties associated with the pandemic will encourage even more people to return, as Mrs Bryant did.

If there were more people in her community, it would be better for everyone, Mrs Bryant said. Maybe that’s the call we need to make to get everyone together.

Donations to the ailing fund can be made online or by cheque.

Related Tags:

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