Where Covid Left Holes, Volunteers Stepped In


As their communities’ needs shifted amid the pandemic, these neighbors offered help.

“It was all her idea,” Vanessa’s mother, Laura Fransen, said. “I didn’t even know Little Free Libraries were a thing. And then we found out it’s a worldwide, global phenomenon.”

“We tried to pick books that their families could use,” Ms. Fransen said, including cookbooks and coloring books with postcards people could send to loved ones.

In August and October, Vanessa worked with First Book again, this time focusing on Makoti’s younger residents. Through the nonprofit, she got 140 additional books; 90 of them were from the Magic Tree House series and were donated by the author, Mary Pope Osborne. She distributed them to children around her community as well as to a local school and the Little Free Library.

Vanessa, who recently started seventh grade, hopes Ms. Osborne’s books, which combine history and education with adventure, will help children feel less isolated.

“What I love about reading is that it takes you to different places and you learn about new things,” she said.

Ms. Fransen added, “Right now, when everything’s being taught virtually, it’s important for kids to have a tangible book in their hands.”

It’s been particularly rewarding, Vanessa says, to know she’s making a difference where she lives.

Joyce Bryant and Virginia Moses, friends from Brooklyn who are both 70, echoed that sentiment. They are retired — Ms. Bryant was a home care worker, and Ms. Moses worked at an electronics store — but neither is content to relax.

Bonnie and Ned Rogers, both 74, have also spent their retirement helping others. They were born and raised on Staten Island, met in college on a blind date and have been married for 52 years. In 2000, after retiring from the telecom industry, Ms. Rogers saw an ad in her church newsletter for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, run by Community Service Society, another organization supported by The Fund.

“I wasn’t quite old enough at the time to join,” Ms. Rogers explains, “but they let me be a sort of welcome volunteer.”

Two years later, when a friend and fellow volunteer passed away, the program asked if Ms. Rogers could take over his route for Meals on Wheels, a food assistance program for seniors. Mr. Rogers joined her after he retired in 2004, and they’ve been working it as a team ever since.

“You have a route with dedicated people, and over time you establish a relationship with them,” Mr. Rogers said. “A lot of the clients are homebound, and they look forward every day to having this interaction with somebody.”

Those relationships were brought to an abrupt halt by the pandemic. In March, the service shifted to providing weekly deliveries of frozen food instead of prepared food five days a week, and volunteers like Mr. and Ms. Rogers were put on the bench.

“We really missed it,” Mr. Rogers said. “While volunteering, we give back, but there’s a lot we receive from doing it, too. It’s not true altruism. It gives us a reason for being.”

In May, Mr. and Ms. Rogers returned to their Meals on Wheels route as community organizations found ways to adapt.

The couple worried about those whom they hadn’t seen in weeks. But on their first day back, they were pleased to see many familiar faces. “The thank you’s, the smiles — even with masks on — were wonderful,” Ms. Rogers said.

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