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Coronavirus Volunteers Serve the Hill

Allison McGill is just getting home from dropping off dinner to an elderly neighbor when I get her on the phone. Unable to leave the house during the COVID-19 outbreak because of her health, the neighbor had been expecting dinner to arrive from a different source. When it did not, the woman’s social worker called McGill. So, McGill and her teenager wiped everything down with sanitizer, put on makeshift masks and brought the woman dinner.

McGill is the founder of Food On the Table DC (formerly called the DC Coronavirus Volunteers). On March 12, the day after Mayor Bowser declared a public health emergency in the District, McGill tweeted a call asking people who were at risk or vulnerable to the virus to contact her if they needed help. By then, she already begun gathering a list of volunteers willing to assist from the Table Church DC (945 G Street NW), where she is Director of Care. By March 25, after having expanded the search through social media and word of mouth, she had a list of more than 2,500. That list is now over 3,000 strong.

Allison McGill and Amber Seyler in early March. Together they work with more than 2,500 volunteers. Courtesy: A. McGill

There are so many volunteers for Food on the Table that they now have a website, hosted by the Table Church, and are calling for more people in need to reach out to them for help.

“I laugh, but it’s actually beautiful,” McGill said of the outpouring of volunteer support. “It’s one of those sweet moments. People want to help and that says a lot about our city, and our area.”

A Volunteer Corps
“We are in unprecedented times and a lot of Ward 6 neighbors are scared about what the immediate future looks like,” said Councilmember Charles Allen. “Knowing there are people out there like Allison, the 3,000 volunteers working with her, and other groups including the Ward 6 Mutual Aid Network and long-standing nonprofits, gives me so much hope and a full heart to know we will get through this together. We are becoming a stronger community through this pandemic.”

Other organizations and even city agencies have reached out to the group for help, said Amber Seyler, the volunteer who spends nearly twelve hours every day managing operations for the group. In addition to individuals in need of assistance, Bread For the City and the Capital Food Bank have all contacted them for help.

Seyler was one of the first people to volunteer, offering up her organization skills, which McGill welcomed. Ordinarily employed in television production, Seyer was between jobs and wanted to make a difference. She had suffered through a major health scare four years ago which cost her all her savings. She downplays any present concerns about her own financial future in this time of uncertainty.

“I know that feeling, of wondering ‘what am I going to do?’ not figuratively, but really. ‘How am I going to go on after this?’” she said. “I would hate to think there is someone out there I could help, someone who was wondering, ‘how am I going to feed my kids?’”

Seyler manages the tasks in two streams: big asks for groups of volunteers, and requests from at-risk or infected individuals for help. Every day, the whole group receives an email newsletter listing places or organizations where help is needed from more than one person. Between 75 and 100 of the volunteers work in the community daily.

Meanwhile, Seyler matches individuals with needs to a volunteer who can help that person with their particular request. Rigorous hygiene protocol is enforced, and each volunteer has to have a mask, gloves, sanitizer, and disinfectant.

Sometimes Leaving Things at the Door is Important
Noelle Porter was one of the first people to reach out to McGill for help. In early March, she showed symptoms of COVID-19 – difficulty breathing, a heavy cough, and fever. Her doctor told her she was presumptively positive. However, she was immunocompromised, so going for testing would have been a greater risk to her than staying home.

So, Porter self-isolated, in the strictest sense. She lives alone, so there was nobody to task with even simple errands.

“You’re so exhausted,” Porter tells me of the effects of the disease. We’re speaking over the phone, after she’s emerged from her isolation. “Talking uses so much lung capacity, and you just don’t have the energy.”

Porter met McGill when she moved to the District six years ago and knew she could ask McGill for help.

“I reached out to her because I ran out of toilet paper, and she was like, ‘I’ll have a volunteer drop it off,’” Porter said.

“I knew she’d bring me TP. Little did I realize she had a small DC army of people who could do it.”

Those volunteers picked up prescriptions for Porter and brought groceries, speaking to her through the window when they dropped items off at the door. McGill also set up a plan to ensure that Porter could get to the hospital if necessary.

Porter said it was really remarkable and comforting to have all the support of a volunteer army behind her. “Sometimes a little thing like leaving things at the door is that important,” she said.

And sometimes, the help is major. In the course of organizing volunteers, Seyler met a woman who could not keep fresh food in her apartment because she had not had a working refrigerator in six yearsShe put a call out, and in seven hours neighbors had bought the woman a new one.

We Have People Happy to Help You
I ask McGIll and Seyler: what are their biggest needs? First, and foremost, says Seyler, they want at-risk and vulnerable community members to stay home and reach out to them for help.  “We have people happy to help you,” said Seyler.

Both Seyler and McGill emphasize that people with any kind of need can ask them for help–whether they need food, prescriptions, someone to get their mail or someone to talk to.

Loneliness is a health issue for the isolated, too, they say. To that end, McGill said, cards have been made available on the group’s website to help make connections and facilitate support. You can download, print and fill out your name and contact information. The cards can then be distributed down your street or hallway, to let neighbors at-risk know that you are willing to help.

“The biggest way to help is to know our neighbors,” she said. “People are more likely to call a neighbor than someone they heard about on the news or a complete stranger.”

McGill says community members can donate items to the Ward 6 hub for DC Mutual Aid at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW, 545 Seventh St. SE). The Ward 6 group is spearheaded by Serve Your City (SYC) DC, with whom McGill’s group is partnering. Needed items include technology for students who need to learn from home, household supplies and food.

Financial donations can be made to the volunteer group through the Table Church. Funds will be used to ensure that those needing supplies, medication, or a meal can receive them whether they have money or not.

McGill said she is empowered by how a small act has turned into something so incredibly big. “It’s amazing how a small drop can turn into a wave,” she said. “I guess we can all do something big by doing a little.”

Learn more, request assistance, donate or volunteer to help by visiting https://thetablechurchdc.org/coronavirus-assistance or by emailing dc.coronovirus.volunteers@gmail.com

This article appears in the May 2020 print issue of the Hill Rag.

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