Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Volkswagen drivers across the nation are pitching in to help their neighbors.
Community service is nothing new to Marqese Singleton, and when the pandemic hit his community in early March, he had no plans of slowing down. A parent liaison for Hawthorne Avenue Elementary School in Newark, New Jersey, Singleton has distributed free, fresh vegetables to local families every week for the past three years.
On Fridays, he picks up unused produce in his white 2013 Volkswagen Jetta, which he calls “the Hawthorne Car” because he uses it so frequently for his work. He drives the Jetta back to a nearby church, where a team of volunteers helps sort, package and distribute the collected produce to over 100 families. He typically devotes eight hours every weekend to the cause.
However, as the COVID-19 crisis has put additional financial burdens on the Newark community, the demand for Singleton’s produce giveaway has surged, nearly doubling over the past two months.
“We had to keep the vegetable service going,” he said. “The everyday issues in this community didn’t go anywhere.” His team of volunteers have expanded their curbside services to help feed up to 200 families. “Our list of families grows every week,” Singleton said.
He also introduced at-home delivery of fresh vegetables for parents who can’t leave their homes and expanded the service to anyone in the area who may be short on food, including those experiencing homelessness.
“I pack up the supplies in the trunk and backseat [of my Jetta]. It usually takes several trips of filling the Hawthorne Car up and dropping off the vegetables to each family,” he says. “By the end of the day, I have bits of broccoli, peppers, zucchini and onions all over the inside of the car.”
It may feel like a chore for some, but Singleton considers his weekend volunteerism a privilege. “It’s enough to see people smile and know they appreciate it,” he said. “It’s my job to help my community, and if I can help out by volunteering some extra time, that’s even better.”
An hour away, Nate Byrnes was likewise inspired to give back to his New Jersey community during COVID-19. After seeing a call-out on social media in mid-March for extra assistance to support Mercer County’s Meals on Wheels chapter in New Jersey, Nate Byrnes immediately volunteered. An aspiring doctor, the 21-year-old biology student wanted to give back to his community in a significant and safe way.
Millions of elderly Americans depend on the nonprofit’s home-delivered hot meals for daily nourishment. But about three-quarters of the organization’s regular volunteers are 55 years and older –people most at risk from continued social contact. The rate of new elderly residents requesting meal delivery has tripled in the past month, so the group was looking for college-aged help.
Using his 2005 Jetta, Byrnes has been able to make 15 runs and deliver more than 200 meals to those in need all while juggling his daily schoolwork. He’s also secured a job at a construction company to assist with symptom-based screening and received his emergency medical technician certification.
“Being able to drive around and do something tangible to help the situation – besides staying home, which is probably the best thing you can do – feels really good,” Byrnes said.
He says the best part of volunteering has been meeting other volunteers and new neighbors through the program. “I plan to keep volunteering even after this is all over,” said Byrnes.
Melanie Moore in Cincinnati similarly felt compelled to action amid the crisis and found new ways to give back to her community during this difficult time. The former schoolteacher turned entrepreneur operates a mobile bookstore out of a teal 1962 Volkswagen Transporter and typically sells her inventory online and at area coffee shops and pop-ups.
Charity has always been a major component of Moore’s business, Cincy Book Bus; she donates all profits to purchase books for children in low-income schools.
“I usually fill up the truck with books I plan to donate and drive directly to the school so kids can come up and pick out their books in person,” Moore said. “It’s one of my favorite things to see how excited the children get about the Book Bus. The old gal is really the star of the show.”
Since COVID-19, Moore has taken the bulk of her business online. She accepts virtual book orders through her website and ships them across the United States. During the crisis, she has discovered new and inventive ways to promote literacy and connection during this time of separation.
Her partnership with the local Blue Manatee Literacy Project and Book Store has enabled her to continue her charity work and get free books into the hands of kids who need them the most. “I could get the books cheaper from my supplier, but for every book I buy through them they donate a book back to the community,” says Moore.
As a result, she’s been able to donate $1,000 worth of new books to be distributed through the Cincinnati Public Schools meal program, which offers free and reduced-price lunches to students. The program is still operational and delivering meals to students three days a week despite recent school closures.
She has also been able to stock a library for Casa de Paz (House of Peace), a safe house for Latina women and their children who have suffered trauma and abuse, and offered to gift wrap books with hand-written notes for free with book orders placed through her website for Mother’s Day.
“Books can bring comfort and relief. They can transport you to another place and time – at least for a little while – and provide an escape from the stresses of today,” says Moore. “We need that feeling of peace and content, especially right now.”