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Meet the 25-Year-Old Who's Recruited 10,000 Volunteers to Help High-Risk People in New York City

"It feels like we've accidentally created a community of young people who just really wanted to help right now."

It all started with a Facebook post. "Is there a way for an able-bodied 25-year-old to volunteer to help deliver groceries/supplies to elderly tenants around the city? Does anyone know of something like this?" Simone Policano, an actor and producer who lives in New York City, wrote on March 12 as the number of coronavirus cases were starting to rise.  When she couldn't find an organization already coordinating volunteers for at-home deliveries, Policano and her friend Liam Elkind created Invisible Hands, a "free, volunteer-based delivery service for those most impacted by and most at-risk for severe complications due to COVID-19." Only a few weeks later, over 10,000 predominantly young volunteers are now part of Policano's network, which covers the greater New York area and parts of New Jersey. "We completely did not expect this," Policano says. "In this time where we are stuck in our homes, it's amazing to see young people wanting to help."

With over 63,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and a death toll of nearly 3,000 people, New York City is one of the hardest hit areas in the world by the pandemic. People in high risk groups — the elderly, people with disabilities, and those who are immunocompromised — need to take extreme precautions to avoid contracting the virus, including avoiding leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. However, strict isolation poses its own challenges: difficulty getting errands done, including fetching groceries and prescription medications, and the loneliness, depression, and anxiety that can come with long periods alone. Many services, such as grocery delivery are also overwhelmed, making delivery slots nearly impossible to reserve; as a result, many at-risk people had little option but to leave their homes to pick up the essentials.

This is where Policano and her new legions of volunteers are meeting a critical need  —  connecting those at high risk with volunteers, many of whom are young people at home due to school or work closures. To expedite the process, Policano built a website, invisiblehandsdeliver.com, where volunteers can sign up to be part of Invisible Hands' database and people in need of assistance can send in a request with details about what they need and where they live. "When someone submits a request, we send a blast to everybody within the neighborhood: 'Who wants to take it?'" Elkind says. Policano says while she hoped the idea would take off, she didn't expect just how quickly people would sign up to volunteer. "Ninety percent of our deliveries are able to happen in the same day, if not even within a few hours. And that's incredible," she told NPR. "It feels like we've accidentally created a community of young people who just really wanted to help right now."

Policano chose the name Invisible Hands because of the way their volunteers operate: "We call ourselves invisible hands because, unfortunately, given what is known about COVID-19 we want to minimize as much direct contact in our deliveries as possible," she wrote on the website. They require that volunteers affirm they have not traveled outside the country or come in contact with someone showing potential symptoms in the last 14 days, and they must not be showing any signs of ill health. All volunteers also pledge to maintain social distancing protocols, as well as to wear gloves when performing deliveries, wash hands frequently, and maintain distance from recipients.

Recognizing the toll that the lack of human contact can have on people, Invisible Hands is also working to make sure people don't feel isolated. "You will talk on the phone with your volunteer and you can tell each other a little about yourselves!" Policano writes. "In this incredibly isolating time we’re happy to provide you a connection." She says that connection has been the most rewarding part of the experience. "I was about to hang up [after one call]. And [the woman] said, you know, I just have to tell you. Today is my birthday. And this is the best gift that anybody could have given me," Policano recalls. "And so she started crying. And I started crying. And it was a whole thing. And she said, you know, I am 60 years older than you are. And we are now connected."

If you live in the greater New York area or in New Jersey, you can sign up to volunteer or request assistance on the Invisible Hands website.

Children's Books About Mighty Girls Helping People In Their Communities

Ordinary Mary's Extraordinary Deed

Ordinary Mary's Extraordinary Deed

Written by: Emily Pearson
Illustrated by: Fumi Kosaka
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

The most amazing thing about kindness is how it ripples out beyond the original act! Mary finds a patch of blueberries on her way home, and decides to pick some for Mrs. Bishop. Mrs. Bishop in turn makes blueberry muffins that she gives to five people — one of whom helps five more, and then one of those helps five more... Before long, a variety of kindnesses, some with a small impact and some with a huge one, are creating a change that extends worldwide. It's a lovely testament to how little acts of compassion and kindness have big potential for the entire world. For another story about how kindness can spread across the globe, we recommend Plant A Kiss for ages 3 to 8.

Boxes for Katje

Boxes for Katje

Written by: Candace Fleming
Illustrated by: Stacey Dressen-McQueen
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Katje's Dutch town has been ravaged by World War II, and her family is struggling to get by with almost nothing. Then, one day, a box arrives from America: a little girl named Rosie has sent necessities like soap and socks, and even chocolate for a treat! Katje is so thrilled that she sends a letter of thanks, and soon both girls are sending exchanges full of surprises. What started as an act of generosity becomes an ongoing relationship that changes the lives of both girls — and the people in both their towns — for the better. Candace Fleming based this story on her mother's childhood, and the story of how simple acts of generosity can last a lifetime is sure to get kids thinking about what their own acts of kindness can do.

Maddi's Fridge

Maddi's Fridge

Written by: Lois Brandt
Illustrated by: Vin Vogel
Recommended Age: 4 - 9

Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood and attend the same school, but when Sofia looks for a snack in Maddi's fridge one day, she is shocked to discover that her friend Maddi spends many of her days hungry. Maddi makes Sofia promise not to tell, but it's hard for Sofia to enjoy all the good food on her own family's table when she knows Maddi's family has none. It turns out, sometimes the kindest thing to do is to break a promise. This book about food insecurity provides a model for empathetic and compassionate friendship with a person in need.

Ernestine's Milky Way

Ernestine's Milky Way

Written by: Kerry Madden-Lunsford
Illustrated by: Emily Sutton
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

With Ernestine's Papa away fighting the war, and Mama expecting twins, carrying two mason jars full of milk to the neighbors falls to the her. And while Ernestine loves declaring to the Great Smoky Mountains, "I'm five years old and a big girl!"... the journey is a bit intimidating when she sets out! But every scary sound turns out to be a not-so-fearsome beast, and even when she accidentally drops one of the jars — sending it rolling down the mountain — Ernestine finds it again and discovers a treat inside: butter! This charming picture book full of can-do spirit also celebrates the joys of discovering your independence and helping others in need.

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference

Written by: Chelsea Clinton
Recommended Age: 7 - 11

Activism can sometimes seem overwhelming — but there are problems large and small that kids can tackle every day! In this book, Chelsea Clinton addresses five key concepts — public health (including sanitation and hand washing), hunger, climate change, endangered species, and bullying — and shows kids how to start solving them, either individually, locally, or globally. Each chapter ends with a "Start Now!" bullet list, providing suggestions for young would-be activists to take first steps towards big changes. Kids will particularly love the photographs of real kids, just like them, who have started leading the way for people around them.

Stay

Stay

Written by: Bobbie Pyron
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

Piper's life is turned upside down when her family moves into a shelter in a whole new city. She misses her house, her friends, and her privacy — and she hates being labeled the homeless girl at her new school. But the shelter also brings new friendships with other girls in the shelter's Firefly Girls troop and with a sweet street dog owned by an elderly homeless woman named Jewel, who refuses to move into the shelter because she can't bring her beloved Baby. After Jewel is hospitalized and Baby is sent to an animal shelter, Piper decides to rally her new Firefly friends and figure out a way to make sure that Jewel and Baby can stay together and move off the streets for good. Told in alternating perspectives, this heartfelt story explores the many faces of homelessness while speaking to the importance of hope, the power of story, and the true meaning of home.

It's Your World! Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going!

It's Your World! Get Informed, Get Inspired, & Get Going!

Written by: Chelsea Clinton
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Kids need to hear that this world isn't just for the adults — it's their world too! Author Chelsea Clinton breaks down some key social issues facing the world today, including poverty, climate change, gender equality, health, and endangered species. With a mix of statistics and personal stories she shows what challenges affect each of these areas, and then breaks down how kids and teens can help. Empowering and informative, this book encourages kids to take ownership of the world around them and reminds them that every person can make a difference.

Be A Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters

Be A Changemaker: How to Start Something That Matters

Written by: Laurie Ann Thompson
Recommended Age: 12 and up

When a teen has an idea for a way to change the world, she may not know what to do to make it a reality. This book will guide her through it, step by step! Individual chapters cover everything from refining your idea to fundraising to creating a business plan, and even discuss what to do when you're ready to move on, whether you're closing down your project or handing it off to another person. Changing the world may not be easy, but with this book, she'll know where to start.

UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World

Written by: Dr. Michele Borba

Studies show that teens are 40% less empathetic today than they were thirty years ago – a trend that hurts both kids and society as a whole. In fact, self-focused behavior can hurt academic performance, lead to increases in bullying behavior, and reduce kids’ resilience when things go wrong. This thoughtful parenting book explores nine research-based habits to build kids’ empathy. From identifying and controlling their emotions to thinking about "us" not "them", these strategies can be used daily to encourage kids to see the world from the perspectives of other people around them, reducing rudeness and bullying and setting them up for a lifetime of positive relationships.

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