By Jocelyn Wiener, CalMatters

041720CaMattersAltruism1From inside our homes, this might seem the loneliest moment in modern history. 

Slowing coronavirus has meant many of us are physically cut off from friends and family, schools and workplaces, senior centers, book clubs and Little League teams. 

Yet woven throughout the horror of the present, evidence of grace abounds. Some manifests in grand gestures, some in small details.

Becca Rosen, a Los Angeles-based fashion designer, said her neighbor — who, as luck would have it, owns a small toilet paper company — has been gifting rolls on neighborhood porches. Talia Golin, a 5-year-old Berkeley street artist of sorts, has been drawing chalk rainbows on the sidewalks near the homes of immunocompromised neighbors.

(Image: Patti Wang-Cross plays the ukulele as neighbors sing ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ ‘Happy Birthday,’ and songs by Bruno Mars during their weekly sing-along. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

And then, consider the case of the swans and the canned corn.

Gayle Hagerty, the volunteer caretaker of swans that live on the grounds of the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts, recently had to spend two weeks in quarantine. For 25 years, Hagerty has cared for the swans — clipping their wings, ordering their food, overseeing their medicine. She currently has two in her charge — 23-year-old Blanche (who Hagerty has known since she was an egg) and Blanche’s somewhat grumpy betrothed, 12-year-old Blue Boy (who also goes by Swanathen). Hagerty could order enough feed for the swans from home. But the canned corn they loved was being rationed.

With Blanche sitting on her nest full time (Swanathen is reluctant to be a stay-at-home dad), the corn was especially important, because Blanche could eat it quickly and hurry back to the nest. So Hagerty posted to Nextdoor. Her community responded in force. Swan lovers came from various corners of the city, ultimately dropping off more than 200 cans of corn at the Palace’s locked gates.

“It’s been phenomenal, really, the generosity of the neighbors,” Hagerty said.

Christine Carter, a senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of several books about happiness, said efforts to connect and support each other are a very human response to crisis.

“Is this exceptional? I don’t actually think it is,” she said.  “I think humans are hardwired to help each other.”

In stressful situations, she said, people can have two different instincts. Some go into a fear-based response, worrying primarily about their own survival. They hoard toilet paper and Tylenol. Others are more focused on species survival and, thus, the needs of others. While fear-based responses tend to create more stress and raise people’s blood pressure, community-mindedness has the opposite effect: lowering blood pressure and fostering positive emotions, “even a sense of awe.”

“Ironically, it helps us more as individuals,” she said.

Even the smallest details matter, Carter said, noting that she recently burst into tears watching a video of people standing on their balconies, cheering for health workers.

“The beauty in such a small act, it’s more than a silver lining, it’s everything,” she said.

In her own neighborhood in San Rafael, people have begun stepping outside their homes every night at 8 p.m. to howl to one another, like wolves in the forest.

“It’s just connecting into the larger neighborhood in a way that, frankly, we never have before,” she said. Her dog, she said, has found this development confusing.

041720CaMattersAltruism2

The weekend before the Bay Area began sheltering in place, Krista Luchessi, who runs an organization that delivers free groceries to low-income seniors, spotted an article about a woman from Louisville who was matching neighbors who needed help with those who could provide it. She forwarded the article to her friend Paige Wheeler Fleury, a marketing strategist. 

“Can we do this?” Luchessi wondered. The next day, Wheeler Fleury posted news of their effort, called Oakland At Risk, on Nextdoor and Twitter. A month later, she’s had 1,400 volunteers sign up, and has matched 220 of them with seniors and immunocompromised individuals in need of help with groceries or medications — or just someone to talk with. 

To prevent abuse, Wheeler Fleury said she matches people of the same gender who live in the same neighborhood, and does her best to vet volunteers online and over the phone — especially when she’s pairing them up with someone who seems especially vulnerable.

(Image: Talia Golin, 5, creates rainbow sidewalk chalk messages for her neighbors thanking them for acts of kindness or showing support for those who are self-isolating. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

“Every person that stepped up to do this lives within five miles of me and that gives me so much hope about what we can be as a community,” Wheeler Fleury said.  

Since word of their effort has spread, people around California have reached out for tips about how to replicate it: “It’s kindness spreading,” she said.

Shawna Reeves, director of elder abuse prevention at the Institute on Aging, said while such programs are “vital and important” and most participants are “good, honest people,” the current combination of isolation, dependence and fear can put some vulnerable seniors in precarious situations. She recommends that volunteer organizations limit financial transactions between volunteers and the people they serve, and says ideally the same volunteer shouldn’t do both wellness checks and grocery shopping. She also recommended that elderly people tell trusted individuals about the arrangement and that the volunteer organizations try to raise awareness about scams targeting seniors.

Such grassroots efforts can have real impact on emotional well-being, said Merritt Schreiber, a professor of clinical pediatrics at the Lundquist Institute at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and UCLA’S David Geffen School of Medicine.  “Social support has been shown to be one of the strongest predictors of coping with disasters and adverse experiences,” he said.

While much discussion surrounding coronavirus has focused on flattening the infection curve, Schreiber believes there’s a psychological curve too. Enhancing social support, he believes, is one way to protect more people from mental health problems.

Billie Greer, 82, lives in downtown Los Angeles, in a building she shares with “a lot of millennials and their dogs.” Greer, who ran a government affairs firm for decades before retiring recently, guesses she’s probably the oldest resident. She’s been surprised and heartened by how many of her younger neighbors have reached out to ask if they can buy groceries for her.

“I jokingly say to friends, ‘With all this, I should open a food bank out of my front door,’” she said.

Just as meeting basic needs for food and medicine is essential right now, providing protective gear for health workers has become imperative.  

That’s why Carol Wu and her friend, Li Yan, decided to raise money to buy masks for health workers in their community. They started tracking the outbreak earlier than many of their Palo Alto neighbors, since they have family members and friends in Hong Kong and China. Wu said she read stories in the international press about people lining up for six hours to wait for masks. Then, in late February, the first cases of the virus began appearing in Santa Clara County, which still has one of the state’s largest outbreaks.

Anxiety kept Wu up at night, worrying about the doctors, nurses, firefighters and those living and working in senior homes in her community.  On one of these sleepless nights, she sent a text to other parents at her kids’ school.

“Let’s do something,” she told them. “Each of us is just a drop of water in a bucket, but together we can let the river flow. Even if we can save one clinic for one week, we’re doing something to help rather than just sitting on the sidelines.”

Yan offered to collect the money. Donations poured in — especially from the local Chinese-American community. Overnight, they raised $3,000, enough to buy 2,000 surgical masks from a local dentist’s office. Within a few days, they’d raised $26,000 from a few hundred people. They bought all 15,000 of the dentist’s remaining masks. They quickly distributed all of them. When they couldn’t find any more masks to buy, they refunded the excess money.

This support from the public is not lost on Dr. Peter Yellowlees, a professor of psychiatry and Chief Wellness Officer at UC Davis Health. People have written the medical staff thank-you notes in chalk at the entries to the hospital, he said.

“When you walk in in the morning and you read a note before you even get into the door that says ‘thank you for what you’re doing,’ that means a great deal to a lot of people,” he said.041720CaMattersAltruism3

Yellowlees objects to the term “social distancing,” saying what we’re actually doing right now is physical distancing, but social connecting. He thinks this experience — and our efforts to support each other and grieve together — will ultimately leave us more connected as a society

“I think we will value our neighbors, our communities more and I think we will interact with them differently,” he said.

This has begun to happen in one corner of Berkeley where, every Wednesday evening, a block of Francisco Street hosts a neighborhood sing-along.

A few neighbors came up with the idea last month, and posted it on their block’s emergency email list.

Patti Wang Cross is among those who embraced the idea. On a recent Wednesday, Wang Cross, who says she plays ukulele “not terribly well, but enthusiastically,” dragged a small blue stool into the middle of the street, and laid some sheet music down on the asphalt. Her 7 and 10-year-olds knelt next to her. Soon, other neighbors trickled outside — each household standing at least six feet from the next. Someone blocked off both ends of the block. Someone else produced a box drum.

(Image: Patti Wang-Cross plays the ukulele with her children Keli, left, and Oskar, right, during their neighborhood Wednesday night sing-along. Wang-Cross said the weekly event was inspired by videos of neighbors singing from their balconies in Italy and Spain. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters)

For a moment, the block was quiet, the way everything seems quieter these days. This silence makes you notice the birds chirping, the breeze rustling through the leaves, the occasional Fed-Ex truck rumbling past. It also makes you miss people.

And then, from the hush, Wang Cross began strumming her ukulele. She, and some two dozen neighbors scattered along the block, muddled their way through the words to “Let It Go,” from Frozen. They moved on, with more confidence, to The Beatles. Two women threw on rainbow boas and led a spirited rendition of YMCA. Everyone did the hand movements. Obviously.

“Overall, I feel like this crisis has brought out the best in people,” Wang Cross said. “It’s been a really beautiful thing.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Pin it

Coronavirus Resources

  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 20, 2020

    Tips for Spotting Fake News Stories — And Where to Find Sources You Can Trust

    Anytime there’s a significant news event — like a global pandemic, for example — you can expect misinformation to spread across the Internet. “Fake news” means stories that contain fabricated information, or information that’s based on rumor, shoddy methodology or a partisan agenda. With the…
  • Picture1
    April 17, 2020

    Recursos Alimentarios Durante COVID-19

    La alimentacion es una gran prioridad para muchos durante esta pandemia de COVID-19- cómo mantener a su familia alimentada en medio de despidos del trabajo, preocupaciones sobre salidas para conseguir comestibles y la posibilidad de transmisión por medio de los alimentos, todo mientras se trata de…
  • Groceries
    April 14, 2020

    COVID-19: Food Resources

    Food is top of mind for many during the COVID-19 pandemic — how to keep your family fed amid layoffs, concerns about grocery outings and food transmission, all while trying to maintain social distance. If you’re struggling to put food on the table, have questions about food safety or need help…
  • 200323 F BQ566 9001
    April 10, 2020

    COVID-19: Recursos Para Indocumentados y Sin Beneficios

    English version available here. A medida que la pandemia de coronavirus da vuelta la economía de la nación y deja a muchos sin trabajo, los inmigrantes indocumentados son particularmente vulnerables. En esta página encontrará recursos para ayudar a los miembros de la comunidad indocumentados y que…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 07, 2020

    COVID-19: Resources for the Undocumented and Uninsured

    As the coronavirus pandemic upends the nation’s economy and leaves many without work, undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable. On this page you’ll find resources to help undocumented community members and the uninsured. UndocuFund for Disaster Relief in Sonoma County The UndocuFund,…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    April 03, 2020

    COVID-19: Santa Clara County Resources

    Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department is providing detailed information about COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospital capacity on several data dashboards available online. The county has also assembled a variety of COVID-19 resources, as listed below and found at sccphd.org/coronavirus. Food…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    Apr 03, 2020

    COVID-19: How to Help

    As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take lives and strain resources, you might be wondering how you can help. Perhaps the most important thing you…
  • SR PD
    Mar 31, 2020

    Santa Rosa Police Department Mourns Loss of Detective

    Updated March 31, 2020, 4:00 p.m. The Santa Rosa Police Department reported today that Detective Marylou Armer passed away from complications from…
  • Medical
    Mar 31, 2020

    Coronavirus Resources

    The coronavirus pandemic has created new challenges for communities throughout the world. Whether you need help getting access to food, filing for…
  • 032720OutbreakCoronavirus
    Mar 30, 2020

    COVID-19: Financial Resources for Sonoma County Residents

    California and the nation have seen a surge in unemployment claims as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies to close their doors, leaving…
  • Library photo for website
    Mar 30, 2020

    Help the Sonoma County Library Tell the Story of Life During COVID-19

    The Sonoma County Library will be documenting life during the coronavirus pandemic with a special collection, and you’re invited to contribute. The…
  • 032920CalMattersEmptyRestaurant
    Mar 29, 2020

    California’s Shelter-In-Place Order, Explained

    By Byrhonda Lyons, CalMatters As President Donald Trump considers easing national restrictions by Easter, Californians are into their first week of…
  • 032920DowntownSantaRosa
    Mar 29, 2020

    Santa Rosa Outlines COVID-19 Support for Homeless

    The city of Santa Rosa says it’s following guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect people experiencing…
  • gavin schools
    Mar 28, 2020

    Los Angeles Will Mirror New York As Coronavirus Surges, Newsom and Garcetti Warn

    By Judy Lin, Ben Christopher and Matt Levin, CalMatters Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti issued dire warnings Friday that the…
  • 032820CovidHandwashing
    Mar 28, 2020

    COVID-19: Sonoma County Resources for Seniors and Vulnerable Populations

    On March 17, Sonoma County’s health officer issued an order for all residents to shelter in place to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The order…
  • 032720CoronavirusResearch
    Mar 27, 2020

    Here’s What Happens to Science When California’s Researchers Shelter in Place

    By Rachel Becker, CalMatters As California officials desperately try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Chris Miller is coaxing a sample of…

NorCal News

  • covid 19 4960254 1280
    March 03, 2021

    Inching closer to the red tier

    Since August, Sonoma County’s been stuck in the state’s most restrictive tier in terms of COVID-19 recovery. But the possibility of opening up the economy a bit more is finally possible. Sonoma’s one of four Bay Area counties still in the purple tier, according to state guidelines. But because…
  • IMG 7516 2
    March 02, 2021

    Santa Rosa Clears a Large Homeless Encampment

    Dozens of people living in Santa Rosa’s largest homeless encampment were forced to pack up and leave Tuesday morning. It marks Santa Rosas’s second encampment clearance in the past week. Activists showed up before sunrise to protest the clearing of Santa Rosa’s biggest homeless encampment on…
  • syringe 5882594 1280
    February 26, 2021

    County Postpones Vaccine Appointments Due to Scarcity

    Next week, Sonoma County is suspending all first dose vaccine appointments due to supply shortage. But the county will keep second dose appointments for both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Sonoma County has been allocated 7,680 doses for next week, five percent fewer than this week. This…
  • vaccine 5873170 1920
    February 24, 2021

    The County is Nervous about Blue Shield's Vaccine Takeover

    On March 7, Blue Shield of California will start administering Sonoma County’s vaccine rollout. The nonprofit insurer will take over the data collection and decide how many doses each provider receives. They’ll also streamline the sign-up process, making most appointments available through…
  • vaccine 5895477 1280
    February 19, 2021

    County Shifts Vaccine Priority to 65 and Up and Food Workers

    On Monday, residents 65 and older, along with food manufacturing, grocery store and restaurant workers will be eligible for a vaccine at one of the county-supported clinics. Prioritization will be given to those with server illnesses, such as cancer or kidney disease. The decision to expand…
  • vaccine 5926664 1280
    February 17, 2021

    The County Still Faces a Vaccine Shortage

    Two months into Sonoma County’s vaccine rollout, 19% of the adult population has received at least one dose. The county is keeping up with other Bay Area counties in vaccinating residents and has opened up dozens of clinics, but the biggest problem has been the same since day one: the county isn’t…
  • vaccine 4946480 640
    Feb 10, 2021

    The County Reaches for More Vaccine Data

    Officials say Sonoma is administering vaccine doses at a faster rate than similarly sized counties. On February 10, officials announced the county…
  • final 4896425 640
    Feb 09, 2021

    The County Compromises on Eviction Limitations

    On February 9, Sonoma’s Board of Supervisors voted to place more limitations on evictions during COVID-19. The amendment limits evictions to extreme…
  • Feb 06, 2021

    Sonoma County Extends Stay-At-Home Order

    State public health officials have extended a Stay-Home Order for the 11-county Bay Area region, including Sonoma County. The move comes as COVID-19…
  • vaccine 5873170 1280
    Feb 03, 2021

    The County Promises an Equitable Vaccine Rollout

    Earlier this week Sonoma County reaffirmed its commitment to vaccinate the oldest seniors first, those 75 and older. Younger seniors were told to be…
  • corona 5174671 640
    Feb 03, 2021

    What We Need to Know: COVID in Sonoma County

    What are the current county restrictions? Sonoma County is currently in the most restrictive purple tier of the California’s Blueprint for a Safer…
  • Nurses protesting outside of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital. Photo courtesy of the California Nurses Association.
    Jan 31, 2021

    Santa Rosa Nurses Demand Safe Staffing

    UPDATE: Earlier this week California’s Department of Public Health halted the staffing waivers. The State says they will not accept any new…
  • injection 5722329 1920
    Jan 27, 2021

    Sonoma County Opens its First Clinic for Oldest Seniors

    Sonoma County is following the state’s guidance to prioritize seniors ages 75 and up in its vaccine rollout. While there’s progress and hope in the…
  • Student doing homeowork.
    Jan 21, 2021

    County Strategizes Reopening Schools

    Covid-19 is rampant in Sonoma County and spreading faster than ever, which means kids are still stuck at home. While vaccines are being rolled out,…
  • pbs
    Jan 13, 2021

    PBS Employee Makes Controversial Statements on Hidden Camera

    Julian Wyllie of CURRENT news reports in a story entitled "PBS Distances Itself from Former Staff Attorney Ensnared in Project Veritas Sting," that…
  • COVIDdec2020
    Dec 06, 2020

    Understanding the New Regional Stay-At-Home Orders

    Regional Stay Home Orders will go into effect within 24 hours in regions with less than 15% ICU availability, and prohibits private gatherings of any…

NorCal News Radio

Science & Health News

Northern California
Public Media Newsletter

Get the latest updates on programs and events.