COVID-19 pandemic prompts Berkeley neighbors to help one another

In the time of coronavirus, some younger people are reaching out to help seniors. (Note: Current health guidelines advise people not to stand this close.) Photo: Terrence McNally/Creative Commons

There may be shortages of hand sanitizer, toilet paper and COVID-19 test kits (depending on who is talking), but one pandemic survival tool appears to be getting more abundant every day: the kindness of strangers.

Over the past few days, social media, faith-based outreach and even café conversations are bursting with people offering to help those affected by the new coronavirus.

In Berkeley and across the Bay Area, the number of residents posting on Nextdoor, Facebook, Twitter and other forums offering to assist people affected by the pandemic jumps every day.

This river of helpfulness comes at a pivotal time as Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new state guidelines (not mandates) on Sunday afternoon calling on people age 65 and over and those with chronic illness to isolate at home. He also called for bars, clubs, wineries and breweries to close, and restaurants to cut the number of customers they serve by half to increase social distancing; and took steps to house homeless people in hotels, motels and RVs.


The new wave of grassroots volunteer troops includes solo helpers as well as organizations and groups.

Erica Etelson, a writer who lives in central Berkeley,  set up an online spreadsheet a few days ago to match volunteers with needs.

“I was consuming way too much news about coronavirus… Thinking about who is going to be impacted the most in our community,” Etelson said. “I and a lot of people I know are youngish and healthy and can be going to stores. There are many of us who can do the simple favor of getting groceries or medicines for neighbors that can’t go to stores.”

Etelson, who calls the effort The Berkeley Mutual Aid Network, posted the spreadsheet online in a few places. As of Sunday, 105 volunteers had signed up offering their help.

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Response from those with needs is slower, she said. “We haven’t had many people asking for help, and I think that’s going to be the bigger challenge.”

But, as of Sunday, six people had posted in the “people in need” column. Their needs: shopping for groceries and cleaning supplies; an appeal for alcohol wipes. “I’m not sick, but the stores are out,” someone wrote.

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Roz Aronson, 85, is one of those signing up for the new mutual aid service. She’s trying to stay home and avoid others right now, partly because of her age, but also because she has been fighting a cold for weeks. Aronson, who lives in North Berkeley, has family in the area who help her, but just in case they aren’t available she now has a place to turn.

“I thought it was really wonderful that people were offering help,” Aronson said. “It warmed my heart.”

Nancy, who preferred sharing only her first name, also signed up. She, too, is sick, weak and congested. She’s 72 years old and lives alone in South Berkeley. Most of her friends are older and she won’t ask them to help because she doesn’t want to expose them to her germs, Nancy said. In a short time, she’ll need help getting groceries, she said.

“It’s so reassuring to know there are people out there who care and are willing to help you,” Nancy said, her voice cracking as she held back tears. “I will definitely use it. What else can I do? It’s nice. It’s so nice. ”

Fliers for the non-tech and more in upwelling of assistance

Many similar offerings are sprouting up on Nextdoor, Facebook and Twitter and by word-of-mouth.

Friends of Adeline is matching needs with volunteers using a Google form for a program it calls Neighbors for Isolated South Berkeley Residents.

Help A Neighbor 2020, started by Berkeley resident Dani Lichliter, is primarily focused on reaching people who are vulnerable but don’t have access to technology. Lichliter has created a simple flier that she encourages people to download, print and post in places where older adults in particular may see it — walls, doors, bulletin boards. She put one on the door of her North Berkeley apartment building.

“I think that’s more accessible than a lot of other options out there,” she said. The group also has a Facebook page and a Google form.

“Many high-risk folks, unfortunately, don’t have access to technology, so they won’t be able to see all of these offers to help,” Lichliter writes.

In less than 24 hours since launching, 139 people had joined the Help A Neighbor 2020 Facebook group, from all over the country, Lichliter said.

The Halcyon Neighborhood CERT group has set up a neighbor-to-neighbor group.

Friends of Adeline is matching volunteers with affected South Berkeley residents using a Google form. Photo: Friends of Adeline

Other recent Berkeley social media posts:

“Any immunocompromised or elderly neighbors that need help getting groceries or meds please reach out! Hello! I just want to reach out to our vulnerable neighbors during this time. If you have fear of getting your groceries or meds, please reach out. Although many of us are social distancing right now, I would be happy to do a grocery or pharmacy run for anyone who can’t right now. This is a good time to come together and help each other out to get through this. Sending love and health.”

“Here to help. Hi neighbors, I know this is an uncertain time so I wanted to offer a helping hand. I’d be happy to run an errand for anyone who needs extra help. Don’t hesitate to comment below or message me! And if you can offer help to neighbors in need, comment below with how 💚”

Students with closed campuses rally to help

One 17-year-old posted babysitting services on Nextdoor for $11 an hour — or free. “I feel so much for all the families affected by the recent pandemic,” she wrote. “I know that a lot of families were not prepared to have to find childcare for their kids in these next few weeks and I am offering my services…  My rate for babysitting is $11/hour but if you don’t have the resources I am willing to work for free or we could work something out.”

And a group of Berkeley High students, off school during the campus shut-down, is organizing how to help people during the time they don’t have classes. The group pondered an entrepreneurial effort charging on a sliding scale from free to $20 an hour, but are now thinking about going all-volunteer.

“It’s a crisis and we need to unite those who are young and less vulnerable with those who are older and more vulnerable. We owe it to them to help out,” said one of the organizers, Naomi, a junior, who is offering to run errands for family, friends and neighbors.

When asked how it’s going so far, Naomi said, “We’re getting a lot of positive feedback, but haven’t gotten a lot of requests yet. As you can see there are 20 other people offering services.”