Life during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for all of us. But for those who were struggling before the crisis, the effects have been dire, says Ashley Pressman, executive director of Jewish Volunteer Connection, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
While Associated agency professionals have worked overtime to support vulnerable community members, volunteers are also stepping up to address Baltimoreans’ additional needs. Yet, like everything else, volunteer work has evolved during the pandemic.
“Volunteer opportunities with JVC generally fall into two categories,” says Pressman. “There’s indirect service where someone creates something like bagged meals, casseroles or blankets. That type of service has grown astronomically during the pandemic, both in the needs we’re meeting and the participation of volunteers. Now that the JCC is open again, volunteers can pick up supplies they need for projects and drop them off at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC when they’re finished. They don’t need to go onsite to complete a project.”
“The other category is human connection. Things like friendly phone calling and Zoom visits to Jewish Community Service clients.”
After the pandemic hit, JVC volunteer Lynda Dye started coordinating the Eldersburg community’s Bunches of Lunches and Casserole Challenge programs. Dye has solicited volunteers through Facebook.
“People prepare the lunches and meals in their own homes and they drop them off in my garage. Drop-off is contactless. I leave my garage open, people drop them off and they let me know they have done so.”
Dye is excited to report that the group recently became an official Facebook “VolunTeam.“ We’re planning to continue virtually as a group. I have had an overwhelming number of people request to be added to the group!” she adds.
Dye, who volunteers with her children, Zachary and Melanie, likes the fact that it teaches them to appreciate what they have and to understand that not everyone is as fortunate.
Dye’s friend Michele Hayunga and her family, also of Eldersburg, participate in the Bunches of Lunches and Casserole Challenge programs, along with other volunteer programs affiliated with The Associated.
“For the past few years, my daughters, Julia and Ashley, and I volunteered at the Mitzvah Day party for adults with disabilities, held at the JCC. We served food, helped with Bingo and got people singing and dancing,” says Hayunga.
“When everything shut down, we heard about Jewish Community Services’ Friendly Calling program for vulnerable adults to prevent people from being isolated during the pandemic. It was especially great when we found out we would be paired with someone we met at [a previous] holiday party,” she says.
“Since the beginning of April, we’ve been calling M. every Sunday, just like we would a family member. He loves hearing about our pet Jack’s escapades and we talk about Disney movies, Shabbat or just what we’re having for dinner. We’re looking forward to visiting him in person after the pandemic’s over.”
One of JVC’s signature programs is Mitzvah Day, held every year on December 25. In years past, Jewish community members have come together to perform a range of service projects. This year, Mitzvah Day has been extended from Dec. 20 to Dec. 25. Deborah Harburger will chair Mitzvah Day turned Mitzvah Week.
“We have an incredible committee of volunteers who have been working since the summer to ensure that we are able to meet vital community needs, even — and especially — during this pandemic,” says Harburger, who volunteers with her children, Jack, 14 and Molly, 10.
“Most volunteer opportunities will be indirect and virtual, with limited direct service opportunities,” she says. “We’ll be offering Mitzvah Week in a Box and people can purchase all six indirect service projects for a discounted price. All the Live with Purpose indirect projects [including nosew fleece blankets, ‘mugs of love,’ women’s hygiene kits, tie dye face masks and more] now are available for pickup from the Weinberg Park Heights JCC and can be returned through early January.”
In addition, JVC will offer six indirect service projects and host two virtual Parties with a Purpose during the week and collaborate with the DC JCC on additional virtual service learning opportunities. Volunteers will also assemble 2,074 winter care packages in collaboration with several community partner organizations.
“In these times when we’re stuck at home, focusing on others is good for our mental health,” says Dye. Hayunga echoes her friend’s sentiments. “It’s gratifying and uplifting for us to make a difference in a tangible way.”