Be a Helper: How to Contribute to Your Community During Coronavirus

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Britt Urban and her partner Emiliano Zanini have a gloved high five after finishing their shopping. They were out shopping for neighbors who are elderly or immunocompromised on Thursday, March 19, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Updated April 13, 5:20 p.m.

On March 19, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state of California must shelter at home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The move mirrored shelter-in-place orders already implemented across the Bay Area that limited what kinds of activities will be available, and what businesses will be open for the coming weeks.

As social distancing practices have been encouraged, many of us are grappling with the question: How does a community come together in a time when we can’t physically be together?

Here are a few things you can still do to help your family and your community:

You can also donate N95 masks and medical supplies to hospitals in the Bay Area as well as learn how to help those who are experiencing homelessness.

Britt Urban, a nurse midwife and nurse practitioner student at UCSF, shops for groceries for neighbors who are elderly or immunocompromised in Berkeley. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

How Some People Are Putting the Social Back in Digital Media

Since social distancing practices discourage knocking on your neighbor’s door, Bay Area residents have been coming together on Nextdoor, Facebook and through good old-fashioned phone calls to meet the needs of their vulnerable community members.

Britt Urban, a nurse midwife and nurse practitioner student at UCSF, found herself feeling helpless at home after her school moved classes online.

“I was starting to feel the pressure and scared, and the anxiety of what was happening as a younger, healthy person,” Urban said. “And so I just couldn't imagine what my community members are feeling like, that there's a direct population that is being told that this virus could kill them. So I just felt like I had to do something.”

She downloaded Nextdoor and asked if any of her elderly or immunocompromised neighbors in Berkeley needed errands run — and the responses came pouring in.

Britt Urban, a nurse midwife and practitioner student at UCSF, offered help to her neighbors on Nextdoor on March 12, 2020. (Courtesy of Britt Urban)

Almost 300 people engaged with the post, so one of Urban’s neighbors created a spreadsheet to organize all of the needs requested and people volunteering.

As of March 16, 24 neighbors had needs met through the spreadsheet — including grocery runs, prescriptions filled, food money and hard-to-find supplies donated — and 152 volunteers remain on standby to help. “It has absolutely made me restore our faith and humanity ... it's really amazing to see people just coming together right now,” Urban said.

“You need to be virtually present in our communities and really show people, especially our vulnerable population, that we are still a community and we're here to support each other,” Urban said.

From the spreadsheet created by Urban and other volunteers, Berkeley Mutual Aid was born: a website where residents can request help, sign up to volunteer or donate. More community volunteer opportunities can be found here:

You can also check Nextdoor for ways you can help residents in your neighborhood.

So far, according to Urban, the number of volunteers in the Berkeley Mutual Aid spreadsheet has far outweighed the needs requested, and organizers hope to connect the list of volunteers with community organizations who need additional help.

Volunteers work to sort donated food at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood on March 18, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Volunteer at, and Donate to, Your Local Food Bank

Food banks across the Bay Area say they’re seeing an increase in need for food and food delivery, and a decrease in volunteer staff.

“We really rely on volunteers. They are a critical element to the way we distribute food,” said Paul Ash, executive director of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. “And since the virus has become present in our community, we’ve seen drops in the number of people volunteering.”

Here are a few food banks looking for volunteers and donations.

YMCA Family Advocate Faida Caldwell (left) and YMCA Senior Director Anastasia Gordon (right) sort fresh vegetables at the Bayview YMCA food pantry on April 9, 2020. The food pantry is free to all Bayview residents every Thursday from 2pm to 4pm at 1601 Lane St. in San Francisco. This is one of several food pantry sites for the YMCA. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Donate to the YMCA's Emergency Child Care

Pop Up YKids is offering emergency child care at several YMCA locations for essential workers with no other options for child care.

The centers need the following items, which can be dropped off at the Mission YMCA at 4080 Mission St. in San Francisco:

  • Chromebooks so the youth can be supported by staff in their distance learning
  • Hotspots for families
  • Soft washable toys and books for infants
  • Board games, arts and crafts supplies
  • Gift cards for families
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Disinfecting wipes
  • Care packages for families that include masks, vitamins and wipes

You can donate online here.

Donate Blood

There is a severe blood donation shortage across the country. The coronavirus outbreak has led to the cancellation of at least 2,700 blood drives nationally, which means 86,000 fewer donations.

If you are eligible and healthy, you can find your nearest blood donation center through the American Red Cross website, app or by calling 1-800-RED-CROSS.

“The need for blood is constant. Regardless of the coronavirus outbreak, we are still needing healthy donors to come out and donate blood to save lives. One donation can save three lives,” said Cynthia Shaw, spokesperson for the Northern California region of the Red Cross.

Blood centers will remain open the Bay Area counties that have shelter-in-place orders, since they are considered essential businesses.

For those who may be hesitant to leave their home to donate blood, Shaw said, “We want to reassure the public that we’ve implemented precautions to ensure the safety of our donors.”

The new precautions include checking the temperature of all staff and donors, providing hand sanitizer, spacing beds farther apart to follow social distancing practices and increasing the disinfection of surfaces and equipment.

Check on Your Friends and Family (Virtually)

Social distancing practices and isolation can be tough on both our mental and emotional health. That’s why it’s so important to check on your friends and family, without creating unnecessary exposure. And experts say when you can, opt for video chat services — like FaceTime or Skype.

“Seeing someone’s face can be more helpful than texting because that type of human contact — all of the social signals and love — comes through more when you can see a human face,” said Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UCSF.

And if you’re personally feeling overwhelmed, you can find some helpful tips here.

This story will be updated.

We're collecting your tips and questions, and hope to share those ideas with other people trying to help — and stay connected to — their Bay Area communities.