Older Minnesotans sheltering at home need help, volunteers step up

A person wearing a face mask holding a box of food
Chann Kong, board chair of the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project, carries a box of food while volunteering at the Vietnamese Social Services of Minnesota on April 28, 2020 in St. Paul. Southeast Asian Diaspora Project volunteers have been making and distributing masks, food and supplies to vulnerable members of the community and front-line workers.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, LeVearne Hagen, who works as a Head Start teacher in Duluth, found she could telecommute. She gained a little more free time for errands to help others.

“I can go do that at 9 o’clock and still go back and finish my work as well. And I just wanted the purpose to do something,” said Hagen. “It's such a blessing to do that, to serve.”

Because the new coronavirus is especially dangerous for older adults and those with underlying health conditions, the need for services for those stuck in their homes has increased. Several nonprofits say volunteers have come forward in greater numbers as well.

At the Wilder Community Center for Aging in St. Paul, the Meals on Wheels program has had more calls for service. The program used to serve about 70 people, now it serves well over 100.

“Normally I'll have maybe somewhere between five or 10 people in a month” instead of 30, said Christine Miller, who runs the program at the Wilder Center. The extra volunteers came at the right time.

“Whether it was a health risk or age, we had a lot of people [for whom] suddenly it wasn't safe to go out and deliver meals,” she said.

Miller said they deliver frozen meals instead of hot and use “contactless” drop-off. Some volunteers help fight isolation by calling and checking in on those receiving the food.

Volunteers with the Southeast Asian Diaspora Project have been hard at work, helping to put out COVID-19 information in different languages and culturally nuanced formats. Teams have also been sewing face masks and making travel-size hand sanitizers and other items to be given out in the community.

“There’s a lot of shared humanity, especially in a time of pain and uncertainty,” said Chanida Phaengdara Potter, the director and community architect for the nonprofit. She said people should look out for neighbors, particularly Asian Americans, who face heightened discrimination.

“I think it’s a great lesson for all of us right now about what community means and how we care for each other and how we need to nurture young people in this work, too,” she said.

Age Well Arrowhead in Duluth, where Hagen volunteers, had to stop their driving services and in-person companionship visits, so their grocery service has become the main way to stay in touch.

“When we started focusing on grocery shopping, we actually saw many more older adults in our region start to call and sign up for it because they either don’t have their own family members able to shop for them or they no longer were comfortable leaving their home,” said Peter Hafften, volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit. While they used to shop for 30 or so people a week, now they are up around 70.

Hafften said there's been so much interest — the number of volunteers has nearly doubled — that signing people up has become a bigger job.

“It's pretty incredible to just have people day in and day out offering their own time to come and help shop for seniors,” Hafften said.

He anticipates that as the state begins to go back to work, he’ll lose volunteers, so he signs people up even if he may not have a job for them right away.

In late March, Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson started Northstar Neighbor, which pairs seniors as well as those with health issues with someone to shop for them and more.

Leah Koch of West St. Paul is one of the volunteers for Northstar Neighbor. She visits a food shelf for a man in his 60s, and she checks in on him by phone and text.

“The idea of being connected to someone geographically close to me that I can run a few errands for was an easy yes for me,” Koch said. “It sort of opened my eyes towards the fact that — yes, this is a desperate time for many people, but also there are so many needs that were being unmet before this pandemic hit as well.“

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