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For many New Yorkers, the COVID-19 quarantine has prompted stocking up and hunkering down.
But some intrepid Samaritans have sprung into action to aid vast numbers of people who can no longer fill the fridge or put food on the table.
All this week, THE CITY is profiling some of the grassroots volunteers feeding those at risk of going hungry, one neighbor at a time.
Heading into summer, Domingo Estevez and Lucas Almonte had a big slate of activities planned for their six-year-old youth nonprofit Uplift NYC: a hack-a-thon, a tech camp and basketball.
But then the coronavirus outbreak hit. So the two co-founders of the Washington Heights-based group canceled everything — and switched the whole operation to providing more direct help.
As the city and state shut down, they knew “there was going to be a need,” Estevez said, particularly as it became clear the pandemic would “disproportionately impact people of color.”
“Our families were already reaching out to us like, ‘Hey, look, I lost my job. Unemployment hasn’t come in. We need support,’” he added. “So we just pivoted the program.”
They started delivering care packages to neighbors who couldn’t leave home or needed help getting by. Boxes have included chicken, plantains, Cafe Bustelo coffee, oatmeal, canola oil, tuna, canned corn, gloves, masks and books for kids, among other items.
The first week, they delivered a month’s worth of food to about 50 families. Now, the pair and a crew of local volunteers have found themselves at the helm of a rapidly expanding relief effort. They’re up to 153 families, representing between 800 and 1,000 people.
Estevez, a community school director at P.S. 132 in Washington Heights, and Almonte, a corporate attorney, are managing the operation on top of full-time jobs.
“I’ve got a nine-to-five. So this is like my 5:01-to-12 o’clock. And sometimes 1 o’clock,” Estevez said.
‘The Humanity Kicks In’
They’re pulling it off with the budget from their nonprofit, donations through a GoFundMe campaign, logistics support from the tech company Onfleet and about a dozen people — some of them out-of-work livery drivers — who volunteer to make deliveries.
Having personal connections to wholesale food distributors uptown helps, too.
“We just literally leverage our parents, our neighbors, community members, and just try to figure out how we can get a bang for our buck,” he said.
They started the effort in their own neighborhood in Upper Manhattan and have expanded to The Bronx.
But requests are coming from all over. Recently, a man from Corona, Queens, called Estevez six times in two days, hoping to get a care package.
“You have stories of individuals who are like, ‘I have my last meal right now. What can I do?’ And that’s when the humanity kicks in and it’s like, ‘Hey man, we’ll figure it out,’” he said.
The group made sure the man got a box, he said.
Despite some encouraging signs about a leveling off of virus cases and hospitalizations, the group is bracing for more intense demand. When months of rent eventually come due, more people will be deciding between food and “keeping shelter,” Estevez said.
“The worst is yet to come,” he said.
Still, he’s encouraged by all the volunteers working hard to keep the operation afloat, many of them young people “coming together to show their love and solidarity” for the neighborhood.
“Even though we’re going into uncharted territory, good people are gonna make sure that we’re able to sustain this,” he said.
Do you have a neighbor helping your New York City community during the coronavirus crisis? Tell us about them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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