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‘You are not alone. There is hope.’ As coronavirus outbreak spreads, so does volunteerism

Anmol Sharma, a volunteer for Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors, delivers food at the Hamilton Grove Apartments, a subsidized low-income housing complex for seniors.
Anmol Sharma, a volunteer for Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors, delivers food at the Hamilton Grove Apartments, a subsidized low-income housing complex for seniors.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In the midst of a worldwide battle against the coronavirus pandemic, neighbors are stepping up across Greater Boston to offer immediate aid to the most vulnerable residents of their communities.

Volunteers by the hundreds are organizing on social media — and extending their outreach by canvassing local neighborhoods, delivering groceries, and offering supportive phone calls — to help those who need assistance during the crisis.

“The main idea is for it to be a clearinghouse for people to offer help, and go look for help,” said Sue Doherty, 59, an organizer for Quincy Neighbors Mutual Aid. “It’s neighbor helping neighbor.”

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The Quincy group, like similar efforts in cities like Waltham, Malden, Medford, Somerville, and Newton, are using Facebook and other web tools to help people who need assistance and find volunteers willing to lend a hand during the outbreak.

Organizers of those groups freely share information on replicating efforts in other communities, including flyers for those who aren’t using social media. There are also phone directories online for residents to have a point person in their neighborhoods to contact about where to find help.

In the case of Quincy, those efforts have included food deliveries and making masks for health care workers, said Doherty, who is a school librarian in Needham.

“I actually think we have been in a really selfish cycle in this society in general, and I do think people are fed up with it. We do need each other,” Doherty said.

Her message to those who need help: “You are not alone. There is hope.”

Health experts have said the nation must practice social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus; organizers acknowledge this makes mounting volunteer campaigns more difficult.

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But forcing people apart at a time like this has only made them more willing to help their neighbors, said Sophia Grogan, 24, who has helped organize volunteers in Medford and Somerville.

“It magnifies what a lot of people know is true — you can’t do it alone,” Grogan said. “There is a recognition that the only way to get through this ... is through a collective effort.”

This volunteer work is not intended to replace the roles of local nonprofits and government in responding to the crisis, she said. In Greater Boston, for example, government must act to protect residents, including renters who face the prospect of eviction, she said.

Many were forced out of work, and will be unable to pay rent when the crisis ends.

“That is one thing the government is sitting on. An eviction freeze is not enough,” Grogan said. “If they don’t put a freeze on rent, people will be homeless.”

The strength of the mutual aid groups, Grogan and other organizers said, is how quickly they can react to immediate need and calls for help.

James Meickle, who helps with Malden Neighbors Helping Neighbors, said the group has helped organize volunteers to deliver groceries, and contacting local seniors to offer support. They’ve also helped out other groups, like Meals on Wheels, he said.

It can be informal help, too. When Meickle, 31, learned of a local senior housing development running out of bleach and hand sanitizer, he immediately headed over to give them the supplies he had at home, he said.

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“It strengthens bonds within neighborhoods,” Meickle said. “Getting an offer of help from your neighbor, no questions asked, it feels better than having to fill out a form.”

In Newton, volunteers with Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors have helped collect and distribute food from the Centre Street Food Pantry to Housing Authority residents. Those volunteers have helped roughly 100 households, according to Rebecca Camargo, the director of resident services at the Housing Authority.

Shalini Tendulkar, one of the Newton volunteer group’s organizers, said that people have wanted to help out locally and in surrounding communities. "We are lucky to live where we live. We are lucky to be part of this,” Tendulkar said.

Megan Russel (left) of the Newton Food Pantry and Cipher Sun and Rebecca Camargo of the Newton Housing Authority drop bags of food off at Parker House in Newton.
Megan Russel (left) of the Newton Food Pantry and Cipher Sun and Rebecca Camargo of the Newton Housing Authority drop bags of food off at Parker House in Newton. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Tia Cole, a member of Lynn MA Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, said the group encourages neighbors to check in on those without access to the Internet, and give them a pipeline to funnel needs through.

Its volunteers also work with many local nonprofit and community organizations, as well as Mayor Thomas McGee’s COVID-19 emergency response operations, she said in a statement.

“This gives us an entire network of support we can utilize for our community. Using this information we developed an in-depth resource guide for anyone in need of housing, food, even mental health and immigration services,” Cole said.

The scope of the coronavirus’s impact has placed much of the US economy at a standstill. Millions of workers have applied for unemployment, and in places like Massachusetts, many businesses have closed, forcing employees to go without paychecks.

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Chris Gamble, 28, was a waiter at a Waltham restaurant that closed a few weeks ago. Many other Waltham residents find themselves in similar situations, he said, and Gamble helped organize a Waltham aid group modeled on efforts in other cities.

The group has posted links on how volunteers can join and what they can do to aid their community. Among those offerings: food, transportation to the grocery store and pharmacy, even social support like regular phone calls to residents who live on their own.

They’re also gearing up to hand out flyers to Waltham residents who may not have access to computers.

“It’s really Walthamites helping Walthamites in this,” Gamble said. “Helping people and making a difference is much easier than most people believe.”

One of those volunteers is Mike Chen, a Waltham resident who purchased groceries for some neighbors on a recent afternoon.

Chen, 45, works in information technology; his job is secure, he said, so he’s been helping others who aren’t as lucky: a few bucks here, some groceries there.

“We’re a community; we’re in this together,” Chen said. “Those who can give have a responsibility to do so.”

Rich Shelley of Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors delivers food at the Echo Ridge affordable housing community.
Rich Shelley of Newton Neighbors Helping Newton Neighbors delivers food at the Echo Ridge affordable housing community.Lane Turner/Globe Staff



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