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Amid coronavirus outbreak, Newton neighbors reach out with aid

Newton City Hall.
Newton City Hall.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

At a time when the best advice from experts is to remain apart amid the coronavirus pandemic, neighbors, officials, and businesses in Newton are working to protect their community’s most vulnerable residents.

In a citywide effort, Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors -- formed only a week ago by Shalini Tendulkar, Shreeda Vyas, Martha Bixby, and Ranjani Paradise -- has pulled together more than 1,000 members to coordinate volunteer efforts throughout the city.

“So much of the guidance we are given about COVID-19 is [about] staying away from each other. It’s hard to hear, and people are afraid about the present and future,” Tendulkar said. “This is important because it allows us to come together.”

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The work of volunteers comes alongside efforts by city officials who are working to maintain crucial services -- including public safety and participation in city government -- while being forced to close down municipal buildings, schools, and also discourage person-to-person contact. Even restaurants have had to scale back operations, covering solely take-out orders.

Those actions are key if the spread of coronavirus is to be slowed; on Tuesday, there were six reported cases of the coronavirus in Newton.

But the city is stepping up; volunteers with the Facebook group are helping fellow neighbors by delivering groceries, donations of supplies like toilet paper and thermometers, and financial support.

Local businesses are also helping during the crisis, like the Corner Café on Washington Street.

Chris Thigpen, the café's owner, has begun offering free hot meals to any student in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 -- including a grilled cheese, soup, and a bottle of water. The offer is open weekdays until school resumes.

"A lot of kids rely on the schools for meals, and we have the ability to offer that up," Thigpen said. "It's an easy thing to do, and it's the right thing to do."

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Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, in a statement Sunday, praised the work of residents helping one another in the face of the outbreak.

“We are so fortunate to live in a community that bands together to help one another at times of great difficulty like this,” Fuller said. “There has been a tremendous outpouring of support for those in Newton who are most vulnerable and neighbors are helping neighbors in creative and meaningful ways.”

Tendulkar, with the Newton volunteer effort, said they were inspired by a similar program organized in Arlington. Other neighborhood aid efforts have also taken root in other communities, including Waltham, Medford, and Somerville.

People who want to help the Newton neighbors group -- or learn how to build a similar organization in their own communities -- are invited to contact their Facebook page. Volunteers can also fill out a form online.

“It’s incredibly gratifying, and to see the threads on Facebook: people wanting to help not just neighbors in Newton, but in surrounding communities," Tendulkar said. "We are lucky to live where we live. We are lucky to be part of this.”

Since the weekend, city and school officials described changes in how services would be provided to residents in order to obey rules for social distancing.

Newton’s schools closed on March 13, and are expected to remain so until April 6, according to a statement from Superintendent David Fleishman. For families experiencing food insecurity, the school system began providing “Grab ‘n Go” meals Tuesday at Newton North and Newton South high schools.

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School staff are also preparing enrichment activities to help students remain engaged while the schools are closed. They won’t replace classroom instruction, Fleishman said, but are intended to encourage students “to explore on their own.”

Staffers are also working to connect with students periodically while they are away from school, he said.

“Together, we will model for our children what it means to contribute to the greater good by making sacrifices to protect our most vulnerable citizens,” Fleishman said in the statement.

Among the closures has been City Hall, which houses the Newton Food Pantry. The organization will continue its work providing groceries, though it has rolled out changes to protect volunteers and clients.

Fuller, in separate statements over the past few days, detailed how the city would change how it conducts business: City staff will continue to provide services using “modified work plans” that ensure the safety of the public and employees, and minimize in-person interactions.

Both the Newton Free Library and the Senior Center are closed, Fuller said. The center’s staff are reaching out to check in with older residents. The library’s online offerings remain available, Fuller said.

Changes extend to the handling of public meetings, including those of the City Council and School Committee. Boards would continue to hold regular meetings, but they would be conducted using online video conferencing software.

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Instructions for using the software to follow meetings of the City Council and School Committee are available on their websites.

The City Council’s president, Susan Albright, said about 50 people, including her colleague councilors, joined the City Council’s online session Monday night.

“I’m trying to carry on as if things are normal,” Albright said. “We want to show that life can go on in this extraordinary situation, and we can go about our business.”

Her message to residents: “Stay home, and stay healthy. That is all there is to it.”

Local groups coordinating help in Newton:

Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors: www.facebook.com/groups/newtonneighborshelping/

Newton Food Pantry: www.newtonfoodpantry.org

Centre Street Food Pantry: www.centrestfoodpantry.org

Arabic Baptist Church Food Pantry: www.arabicbaptist.org










John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.