The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged U.S. communities, families, and lives for over a year, but its effects have not been distributed equitably. For communities of color and older adults — groups that were already marginalized due to systemic issues like racism and ageism — COVID-19 has been especially devastating.
These vulnerable groups have not only seen a disproportionately crushing impact in economic and social realms, but also higher death rates and unequal access to government assistance, whether uneven relief from federal aid for communities of color or poor staffing at nursing homes.
Across the nation, many people have taken it upon themselves to find ways to support these communities, and new organizations are emerging to make sure no one is forgotten during this difficult time and beyond.
Because if we’ve learned anything in the past 12 months, it’s that we are all in this together. Read on to learn about these community heroes.
Compassion in Oakland
Volunteers with Compassion in Oakland offer their services to the elderly in the local Chinatown neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Compassion in Oakland.
In the wake of the pandemic, there has been a surge of hate crimes against Asian Americans. According to a report by Stop AAPI Hate, more than 2,808 firsthand accounts of anti-Asian hate from 47 states and the District of Columbia were reported between March 19 and December 31, 2022.
Last month, after another violent attack occurred, Oakland resident Jacob Azevedo took to social media to offer to walk alongside elder adults within the local Chinatown neighborhood to help them feel safer on the streets. The overwhelming response from nearly 300 others who wanted to join him led to the creation of the volunteer organization Compassion for Oakland.
“At the very beginning of the pandemic, there was a lot of racism against Chinese people, against Asians,” explained Derek Ko, one of the founders of Compassion in Oakland. “I actually experienced racism based on my personal ethnicity, and it hit me really deep. That’s one of the things that really drove me to start Compassion in Oakland with my team.”
Last summer, during the historic protests against racial injustice, Ko, a chiropractor by trade, organized a team of physicians who took to the streets to make sure those participating could get medical assistance.
He used this experience to help organize volunteers who could assist the elder Asian community. The volunteers chaperone these elders, whether they are running errands or just need company.
“Our group of over 700-something volunteers is multiracial and multiethnic,” Ko explained. “It’s a very diverse group, and we’re all showing up and being there for this particular community.”
While elders can request a chaperone by texting or through the website, many of the volunteers are out on the streets looking for opportunities to help. Even after life begins to return to “normal,” Ko said his team plans to continue to provide support for the elderly community.
While racially motivated harassment against Asian Americans is not new, Ko feels this is a chance to help elders find their voice to improve their lives moving forward.
“It might feel dark, it might seem terrible, but it’s always darkest before the light,” said Ko. “I think the fact that so many people are coming together and standing up for themselves is a step forward, especially for our community.”
To volunteer, request a chaperone, or donate, visit the Compassion in Oakland website here.
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Project Dream Fridge
Dion Dawson delivers fresh produce to a resident in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. Photo courtesy of Dion’s Chicago Dream.
Dion Dawson always knew he wanted to give back to Englewood, the south side Chicago neighborhood he grew up in and one of the poorest in the city. Prior to March 2022, local options for healthy groceries weren’t always easily accessible and affordable in Englewood, and people struggled to make ends meet.
When Dawson, who is Black, saw how the pandemic was worsening food insecurity in the area, he knew this was his opportunity to make a difference. So, last June, he set out to feed 100 families.
After reaching his initial goal of raising $2,500 through the help of a GoFundMe campaign, he decided to commit to feed Englewood full time. In August, he officially started his nonprofit, Dion’s Chicago Dream.
“I didn’t know that I was going to start a nonprofit, but I didn’t see one addressing how our society has shifted,” Dawson, who has a background in mass communications, explained. “So I started it myself.”
His first initiative was Project Dream Fridge, a community refrigerator that he stocks every day with free fruits, vegetables, and water. Since its launch in September 2022, it has provided the equivalent of 1,300 meals to residents. It’s become a crucial resource in the area.
“I don’t agree with always giving communities of color scraps. I don’t think that we should always give them the fruit and vegetables that look bad, or are almost about to go bad. Because then, that starts affecting what you think you deserve,” Dawson explained over the phone from Chicago.
Thanks to help from donors and supporters, which he calls his “Dream Team,” last month Dawson launched a new service called “Dream Deliveries.”
Now, each Friday, Dawson, along with his mom, delivers fresh produce to households in the neighborhood. The groceries, which come from a local wholesaler, provide five days of meals to underserved families. He’s been able to help 60 families so far.
“In the case of Englewood, the least we can do is feed them. Once a person doesn’t have to think about what they’re going to eat the next day, their mind is freed up to think about other things — they can focus on providing for their children and having a better quality of life. And so with that, we’re putting the human element back in nutrition.”