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Coronavirus Drives Away Volunteers Just As They're Needed Most

Volunteer Earl Banks guides a load of food to a waiting van at a Denver branch of the Volunteers of America.
David Zalubowski
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Social service providers that rely on volunteers are having to scale back operations, just as more Americans are coming to them for help.

Julio Alonso, executive director and CEO of the Hoosier Hills Food Bank in Bloomington, Ind., says students from nearby Indiana University usually help pack and distribute food, but they've been sent home because of the pandemic.

"In addition to those student groups, a lot of businesses come on a regular basis and volunteer for us as groups, and that has pretty much gone out the window," Alonso said.

He added that even if such groups were available, they can't have too many people working together safely in their warehouse.

So the food bank has completely revamped its operation. Staffers now hand out prepackaged groceries to people who drive up in their cars, instead of allowing them to come inside and select their food. The food bank has also limited warehouse access to the 100 pantries, programs and other agencies that help distribute its food.

Alonso says some of those groups have had to scale back, too. After-school programs have shut down, as have a few smaller, faith-based operations. "A lot of the volunteers that they used are folks in their 60s, 70s, even 80s who are at risk," he said.

Social service providers around the country are feeling a similar squeeze, as they try to keep both clients and volunteers safe while facing a growing demand.

Katie Fitzgerald, the chief operating officer for Feeding America, says their 200 food bank network has seen a huge increase — more than 60% — in the number of people showing up for help in recent weeks. But the number of volunteers has also dropped by 60%. On top of that, donations from grocery stores and other suppliers have dried up because of a spike in consumer demand.

"For the emergency charitable food system in the United States, this is truly a perfect storm," she said.

Some states are trying to fill the volunteer gap by calling in the National Guard. Others are turning to the 75,000 members of AmeriCorps. Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokesperson for the Corporation for National and Community Service, which operates the program, says many members had been working in schools that have shut down. They're now helping with food distribution. Others are manning emergency call centers, distributing homeless assistance or providing virtual aid by counseling students online.

Warfield says Senior Corps volunteers, who are 55 and older, have also shifted away from their usual in-person activities, like taking other seniors shopping or to their doctors' appointments.

She says instead, "they might be doing phone calls to check in on those individuals. They might be creating sort of volunteer efforts to make sure those individuals are still getting their food and prescriptions that they need."

But not everything can be done virtually. Stephen Hitchcock runs The Haven, a day shelter and housing resource center in Charlottesville, Va. He says it's had to limit how many people it serves each day because all at-risk staffers and volunteers have been asked to stay home, leaving them very short-handed.

Some volunteer-run programs at the shelter have also been suspended, including a clinic that usually comes every other week from the University of Virginia to provide medical and psychiatric care.

Hitchcock also works with a group called PACEM, which provides overnight shelter space. The group has transformed an upstairs room at The Haven into a temporary shelter for women because the usual shelter sites lack volunteers and enough space to keep people 6 feet apart.

Hitchcock hopes that if nothing else, the current health crisis makes people more aware of the challenges his clients face. "How does one socially distance if they don't have a home?" he said. "Ultimately what people need is a safe and stable place to live. And that, for me, is highlighted in this pandemic in a really, really clear way."

Amanda Chesney, who runs homeless and housing services for Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., is dealing with similar challenges and worries about the long-term impact as the crisis drags on. They've had to suspend volunteer programs that provide things like yoga classes and game nights, which might seem like luxuries but can be crucial for clients' mental health.

"Right now, everybody's on a hunker down, focus on the now," she said. "But I think as time goes on, it's going to get a little heavier without those [human] interactions."

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.