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Our Guide to Helping Out Your Community (Safely) During COVID-19

In response to the unprecedented threat the pandemic poses to our communities, many Americans have felt a need to rise up and help out, as they have done in past national crises. But COVID-19 presents a unique challenge to our collective philanthropic spirit: how does getting out and helping the community work when we have to maintain a physical distance to be safe?

It’s not as paradoxical as it may seem. Daniel Kelchner graduated from Villanova University’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program in 2020, and now works as the director of community services for Ocean City, New Jersey. In that role, he is the City liaison to the OCNJ CARE project, a nonprofit organization originally formed in response to Hurricane Sandy that now serves as a community-focused emergency response program. Soon after the pandemic hit, he constructed a team of around 200 volunteers to deliver food and necessities to elderly and at-risk populations who couldn’t shop for themselves.

We spoke with Kelchner to find out what insights he applied from his education and experience to make it happen—and how you can help out safely in your own neighborhood.

Reach Out Digitally

You don’t need a meeting place or fliers in today’s digital community. If you have a standing invitation to help, people can respond. OCNJ CARE’s response to the pandemic was more organic than you might think. Kelchner says he started receiving requests for help from people in need as well as offers from volunteers to serve through the OCNJ CARE’s website and the city government’s website.

You don’t have to build a website, but you can get the ball rolling by reaching out on your social media channels, calling people in your network and reaching out to your local government. Be careful to collect the responses in a single email account so people don’t fall through the cracks: Kelchner keeps everything organized in a simple spreadsheet.

Make It Personal

Just because you’re setting things up from a distance, doesn’t mean you can’t be personal. Kelchner looked for ways to connect people with particular skills or geographical connections to people they could uniquely help.

“We had psychologists volunteering who asked if they could help people struggling with the stress and isolation of COVID-19,” Kelchner says. “I would look to pair volunteers with people in need who were close to them geographically, so they could build a relationship more easily.”

So, if you have something in particular you can offer or live near someone who might need help, don’t hesitate to volunteer in your own way—it might be a uniquely critical contribution. 

Take Proper Precautions

You don’t have to be a medical expert to volunteer, but you do need to take your cue from (at least) one. Kelchner followed CDC and local and state guidelines specifically addressing the best and most up-to-date precautions, which, of course, includes wearing a mask.

But Kelchner also found an additional step made volunteering while social distancing easy: choosing a drop-off location and having a strict process on how to use it. Volunteers would drop off packaged food outside of residents homes, get back in their cars, notify the recipient that the package had been placed, then wait in their cars until they saw the food being picked up and taken inside.

The written process ensured that everyone got what they needed with minimal contact. According to Kelchner, anticipating those challenges, and making sure the right people had the right tools and information to tackle the issue, is actually a learned skill that he picked up through his education in Villanova’s MPA program.

“Through the Master of Public Administration program at Villanova, I learned and refined so many skills,” Kelchner says. “During my time there, whether it was through my work with the other students or from the incredible faculty, so many of the skillsets I learned and developed have been so impactful immediately, from the budgeting process to communication to organizing effective groups to creating safety guidelines. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”

So, as you set out to volunteer, practice your planning! Come up with a written plan using resources you trust, trying to imagine any potential roadblocks before they come up. In a pandemic, you can never take too many precautions. 

Keep an Open Mind

During unprecedented times, you may face challenges you don’t expect, or you may not get the same kind of satisfaction you once did when interacting face to face. But according to Kelchner, who has worked for both the Boys & Girls Clubs of Philadelphia and the city’s Department of Human Services, bringing those ideas with you can just get in the way of the full experience.

“When I was working in tough neighborhoods in Philly, people would come in and say, ‘Oh my god, there’s bars on the door.’ And they would be coming in with these preconceived notions, but as soon as they get to meet the people who live there and get to meet the kids and family, it changes hearts and minds and opinions more than you could imagine,” Kelchner says. “You need to bend yourself to the experience.”

During the pandemic, you can still follow up and keep in touch with the people you assist through social media to build relationships and make sure they’re doing ok. Even if the helping hand is virtual, not physical, it still pays off.

“Whether you’re volunteering to help humans or volunteering to clean your beach, no matter the endeavor, come in with a clean slate,” Kelchner says. “You’ll have a positive experience. I’ve had a lot of people say to me that volunteering is almost like a spiritual experience.”

Learn more about Villanova’s graduate programs in Public Administration.