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By Ashley Lauretta
It’s been over two years since the words coronavirus and pandemic became top of mind in daily life. Ever since, New Englanders have been stepping up for their neighbors. Whether it was from sharing random acts of kindness to setting up outdoor spaces to gather or helping their neighbors by sharing time and resources, people came together to try and mitigate some of the havoc caused by COVID-19.
Despite the fact that New England has some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, local communities are still feeling the impacts of the pandemic — and while there are signs of fatigue, that giving spirit hasn’t completely gone away. For some, it’s come out of trying to solve personal problems that have arisen during the pandemic; for others, it’s a natural extension of their philanthropy.
“I am always working to be a helper in these situations,” shares Stefanie O’Shea, a Boston-based running coach. “I went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — I think there’s a bad thing happening and what can I do to help out,” she says. O’Shea became aware of Nesterly Good Neighbors — a platform connecting neighbors with volunteers, powered by the affordable homeshare site Nesterly — through a COVID Facebook group and saw opportunities to deliver food and check in on elderly people in the community.
O’Shea signed up for food delivery and calls with seniors. “And I’m an active parishioner at St. Ann’s, so when restrictions were lifted enough that people could go to church again, I volunteered and ran a team and we checked everyone in and cleaned the church after,” O’Shea shares.
Through Nesterly, which partnered with the City of Boston to reach seniors in need, volunteers like O’Shea made over 4,500 delivery and check-in requests. The program has also expanded to Rhode Island as Be Kind RI, making it easy for Rhode Islanders to keep connecting with their local neighbors.
For neighbors, by neighbors
Sophia Suarez-Friedman, who works for the Wayside Youth & Family Support Network in Watertown, Mass., has an intimate knowledge of the need for rental assistance and food security that was exacerbated by the pandemic. She was one of several Watertown residents who came together to create the Watertown Community Fridge.
Suarez-Friedman shares that when the fridge opened in October of 2021, the generous community of Watertown really showed up, keeping the food, pantry, and personal care items regularly stocked right from launch. Now, thanks to a stream of regular donations, community members experiencing food insecurity can feel dignity in going to the fridge to choose fresh food for themselves and their families.
A community has formed around the fridge, too. Suarez-Friedman adds that thanks to a broad network of volunteers who sign up for shifts to clean the fridge twice per day, it is able to operate so that all donations are following food safety guidelines. Volunteers also do grocery runs and share ideas for the future of the fridge. While community fridges in Boston popped up in response to the pandemic, they’re now fixtures across many neighborhoods, filling a need that remains even as COVID-19 subsides.
“It is fulfilling to be someone in the community getting to do work for the community and also opening up new opportunities for people to be able to support each other and support their neighbors more,” says Suarez-Friedman.
Keeping communities healthy through information access
Other community members, like software developer Olivia Adams, used their unique skills to give back. Adams created the Covid Test Collaborative, a website that uses crowdsourced check-ins to help communities find at-home COVID tests available for purchase at local stores and pharmacies. This site comes on the tails of the now-shuttered MA Covid Vaccines, a site developed by Adams to help report available COVID vaccine appointments in Massachusetts that she says received over 50 million views.
Just as O’Shea was getting COVID updates from local Facebook groups, Adams noticed Facebook threads full of neighbors alerting each other when at-home COVID tests were available nearby. She thought, why not aggregate that information?
“I have two young kids that are both in daycare, and at-home tests are a very important part of our safety layer to limit spread and try to keep everyone safe,” shares Adams. “It was becoming harder and harder to find tests — especially as the holidays approached — and over the holidays, I was seeing articles and videos of people waiting in the snow for hours and traveling to find tests.”
By creating the Covid Test Collaborative, Adams made it possible for people to easily locate at-home tests during a time when they were scarce and demand was high. Rather than posting individual alerts, local Facebook groups then began sharing Adams’ site as the most up-to-date source for key information.
“In working on this website, I learned just how powerful a single person and a single idea can be,” says Adams. “If you have an idea, nurture it and bring it into the world. You’ll never know how many people you can help until you try.”
That was the goal of the first joint community investment by Point32Health’s newly combined Foundation (which had previously operated separately as the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and Tufts Health Plan Foundation). Together, they provided over one million dollars in grants to support vaccine education and awareness in communities of color across New England. That outreach happened in traditional health settings, but also out in communities — at congregations, community centers, and even through the messaging app WhatsApp.
As social distancing and masking measures continue to be relaxed across the region, maintaining access to regular testing, sharing information on how to access tests, and continuing to provide education on the value of vaccinations will be critical.
Even through the ebb and flow of COVID numbers, there are so many ways to help neighbors and communities. Suarez-Friedman notes during her time working in mutual aid, she has observed changes in the types of needs neighbors have been asking for throughout the pandemic.
“At the beginning, it was requests for food and people shopping for people who are immunocompromised or older adults who didn’t feel safe doing so,” she says. “Now it has developed into — this week in particular — people requesting furniture items and clothes.”
The only predictable thing about the pandemic is that it continues to be unpredictable. “In a completely surprising turn of events, my family recently tested positive after dodging COVID the whole pandemic,” says O’Shea. Suddenly, she found herself looking for the kind of help she’d provided neighbors and felt lucky to already have a supportive group. “My friends are asking if they can grab us groceries or get our daughter’s schoolwork; I have that network and am going to be fine, but other people don’t have that.”
Through all the uncertainty, neighbors have continued stepping up for one another. Now, as the “next normal” is on the horizon, many of the ways communities managed to come together in the spirit of resilience are outlasting the pandemic, and are being used as a blueprint for initiatives to navigate the future ahead.
Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and Tufts Health Plan Foundation supported increasing access to COVID-19 vaccines in communities of color during the pandemic. Learn more about community investments in New England here.
Sponsored by Point32Health
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