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Collage by Yunuen Bonaparte. Photos courtesy of Dion’s Chicago Dream and Compassion in Oakland.

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.

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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, 2020.

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.”

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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 2020, 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 2020, 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.”

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Dhruv Pai, right, and Matthew Casertano delivering groceries to an older woman in their community. Photo courtesy of Teens Helping Seniors.

When it became clear last spring that the coronavirus was disproportionately affecting older adults, Dhruv Pai immediately feared for his grandparents. The 17-year-old saw how simply going grocery shopping was now putting their health at risk.

“Every time I saw someone get near them without a mask or somebody wasn’t social distancing, my heart kind of seized up for a second. I kept thinking, What if my grandparents get the virus?” Pai explained over the phone from Silver Springs, Maryland.

To help keep them safe, Pai began making weekly grocery deliveries to their home. Soon, he found out that his friend, 16-year-old Matthew Casertano, was doing the same thing for his grandparents.

Together, they realized that there were dozens of older adults in their area that needed a similar service, so they launched Teens Helping Seniors just weeks after much of the country went on lockdown.

“We thought about people who don’t have grandchildren. What do people do when they don’t have relatives to depend on? And that was really the springboard to starting an organization,” Pai said.

What began as a local project with help from friends at their high school has quickly become a nationwide contact-free delivery service with 850 volunteers and 33 chapters spanning 17 states and even Canadian provinces.

“We chose a chapter system because we figured that especially during the COVID pandemic, the only people who know what their community is going through are the people in that community,” Casertano said.

As the teen founders explained, their delivery service has revealed that there is much more than just the need for groceries. Casertano and Pai say that through their deliveries, they’ve been able to foster an intergenerational dialogue — making the work they’re doing invaluable to the young volunteers, as well.

“Through this time of crisis, we see that maybe we’re not so different after all,” Casertano said. “Even if we’re separated by 60, 70, 80 years of age, we can still come together as a community and help each other out.”