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Volunteer Group Helps At-Risk New Yorkers As Coronavirus Spreads


It started with a few Post-it notes slid under the doors of homes.

NUALA O'DOHERTY NARANJO: Dear neighbor, I live on 90th Street. And given these uncertain times, I wanted to reach out. I'm here if you need anything. Please feel free to call. And I listed my phone number. And I just signed it Nuala.

SIMON: Soon, these Post-it notes turned into thousands of flyers created by dozens of volunteers and, eventually, COVID Care, a mutual aid neighborhood network in Queens, N.Y. Nuala O'Doherty Naranjo started the Jackson Heights, Queens chapter of COVID Care. Thanks so much for being with us.

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why did you put those Post-its under doors?

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: I believe in building community. I always have. And I live just blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, which now is the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. And I saw how scared my neighbors were and how much they needed to know that their neighbors were there for them. And so on March 13, just as the city started shutting down, I and a bunch of volunteers rolled up our sleeves and got to work.

SIMON: What kind of help do people need?

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: Really basic. In the beginning, the first requests were all to ask for people to check in on them. And then over time, the requests were really simple - midnight call for a thermometer 'cause someone thought they were coming down who had a lot of breathing issues, calls to deliver food. A mother who was sick who had five kids, including two 5-month-old twins, wanted food delivered for dinner. We did a special run to do Passover Seder shopping for a group of elderly Jewish people who were really worried that they'd miss a Seder meal.

SIMON: How do people contact you? I mean, not everyone has Internet access.

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: So we really want to reach our most vulnerable neighbors. So what started out as a Post-it note to a few of my neighbors next-door we turned into small flyers. And we went around and left them on the doorknobs of all the apartment buildings nearby. The key is to reach those people who haven't been reached by social media. And it's really important that those people who are shut-in and feel all alone know that their neighbors are out there ready to support them.

SIMON: Do you worry about your volunteers keeping safe?

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: Not really. We take a lot of precautions. The calls are clearly just over the phone. For the deliveries, they usually either write a list and send me a picture of it or email me a list. We go shopping. We wear gloves and masks. And then we just drop the food at the door. And the payments are usually made through Venmo or PayPal.

SIMON: As you mentioned, of course, you live near Elmhurst Hospital, which, in many ways, has been the epicenter of the pandemic in this country in recent days. What do you see in the neighborhood?

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: So if you drive by Elmhurst Hospital, there are ambulances double-parked. There are constant helicopters circling. I think everyone's heard that they brought in the refrigerator truck. But every time you hear the sirens of an ambulance, you think you know exactly where they're going and who's inside. I mean, it's scary.

SIMON: How are you and your volunteers holding up? You've taken on more than ever.

O'DOHERTY NARANJO: I think that gives you strength. Before this, I was running a political campaign to run for state assembly here. And it just seemed silly. I had 70 volunteers trying to help me. And I said, you know, why are we doing this? We need to change our focus. And the question was how best to redirect their efforts.

But I think building community is a little bit like a marriage. You have to keep working at it to keep it strong. So we're lucky that we do have a very diverse but healthy community. And it's pandemics and issues like this that really bring us together. I was here for 9/11. I was here for Hurricane Sandy. You have to know you can rely on your neighbors to get through troubled times like this.

SIMON: Nuala O'Doherty Naranjo lives in Jackson Heights, Queens. Thanks so much for being with us.


(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.