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Why the COVID vaccine inspired a boom in volunteering across Houston



HOUSTON, TX – The last year has been different for Jan Cooper. Church went online, summer travel plans were shelved and going out to the store required masks.

Cooper itched to return to something normal. She retired from a career as an elementary and middle school language arts teacher but in the years since she left teaching, she still wanted to do something to help kids.

So when a retired teachers group newsletter blasted an opportunity to volunteer at Kids’ Meals Inc., the Oak Forest-based nonprofit that provides sack lunches to more than 7,300 Houston children, she signed up to make and stuff sandwiches into bags.

“COVID or not, someone’s got to eat,” she said, peeling slices of bright yellow American cheese for a lunch assembly line.

As people grow ever-more restless after 13 months of isolation and COVID-19 immunization rates increase across Houston, many say they’re ready to give back after a tough year. At organizations like Kids’ Meals, their volunteer base increased by 74 percent over the first two months of the year.

The demand for volunteer aid is at a disaster-level high. The coronavirus pandemic caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs, overwhelming unemployment assistance funds and food banks. The arctic freeze destroyed water pipes across the state, leaving some homeless due to uninhabitable conditions.

Usually, Houston comes together after a natural disaster such as a hurricane or chemical explosion. But those efforts have been hampered by fears of COVID-19, as people who give back worried they’d fall sick. In a typical year, 23 percent of people in Texas volunteer, according to AmeriCorps data, performing more than 566 million hours of service annually.

been a welcome break from self-isolation over the past year, said John Day, the nonprofit’s volunteer manager.

“They’ve been in their houses for a year, they’re ready to go back out,” he said.

Day’s usual volunteers told him they’d rather risk their lives helping others — especially those who have been hit hard by pandemic-induced layoffs and victims of the February winter storm — than going to a party or on vacation.

As of the end of February, 3,543 volunteers have spent time with Kids’ Meals, compared to 2,028 at the same point last year. Before the winter storm, they were serving 6,000 meals to children daily; since February, they’ve added 1,300 more clients and are receiving more than 100 applications a week.

“I think their thought is, if I’m going to go out and risk being out and about, I should do it by giving back,” Day said.

Every summer, Ruth Cummings, a former elementary school counselor, tries to visit somewhere exciting. Last year, she and her husband made plans to travel to Alaska. This year, the void is being filled by spending time giving back.

Cummings usually rotates between volunteering at Texas Children’s Hospital, grief support center Bo’s Place, her church and Kids’ Meals. The commercial kitchen at Kids’ Meals is the only one allowing her to volunteer in person right now, she said.

“We were all teachers helping kids, and this is helping kids,” she said of her volunteer group.

At Houston Habitat for Humanity, volunteers are slowly returning, lured by the promise of outdoor opportunities and careful social distancing guidelines. Most of the interest comes from individuals and small groups, said Anissa Cordova, Houston Habitat’s communications manager.

“We have a lot of corporate sponsors,” Cordova said. “Some of these companies are being very cautious and they’re not ready to come back yet, others are OK with it as long as we’re ensuring we have safety guidelines in place. In terms of individuals, we still have quite a few people who just want to come out and volunteer.”

Vaccine availability has bolstered their helper corps — especially among those who are retired, said David Soto, Houston Habitat’s community engagement and Veterans Build manager. Even those who have only received their first dose are considering spending their weekends helping at the ReStore, where Houston Habitat sells discounted hardware and construction supplies, or maintaining community gardens.

“They’re more comfortable going outside of their home and giving back,” Soto said.

At other organizations, at-home volunteer opportunities abound. United Way of Greater Houston has a virtual project page for people to send encouraging notes to essential workers. The Houston Food Bank will coordinate virtual fundraisers for cash instead of in-person food drives.

Even at Kids’ Meals, where the bulk of their work must be done in-person, Day makes it possible for people as far as Oklahoma City, Savannah, Ga. and New York City to ship decorated brown bags for packing sandwiches and tuna and crackers.

But for some, such as Tom Sanders and Pat Bonner, who show up every Wednesday morning with a cohort of retired educators, drawing rainbows on lunch sacks isn’t enough. They’d rather have the opportunity to socialize with their friends and contribute as much as they can to the nonprofit’s mission.

As former K-12 teachers, they’re used to germs and dirt. Masking up and washing hands were no-brainers for them when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., even if they thought their immune systems were nearly indestructible after decades of dealing with children.

“If they’re hungry, they can’t learn,” Sanders said as he assembled a neat line of hot dogs.

Across the room, eight volunteers slathered Pepperidge Farms bread (a donation to Kids’ Meals from their zero-waste program) with Jif peanut butter, lining up neat rows of bagged sandwiches on plastic pallets for the preppers. The lunches would eventually be paired with fruit, juice, trail mix and/or granola bars, packed into paper bags and loaded into black sacks, destined for delivery to 45 ZIP codes across Houston.

When Sanders and Bonner first volunteered at Kids’ Meals in September, they were unafraid of catching COVID, lured by the promise of strict temperature takes, mask mandates and social distancing.

Now that they’ve been vaccinated — Pat in January, Tom in February — they feel even safer working in the kitchen.

“There’s this feeling of freedom,” Bonner said, zipping a hot dog into a plastic bag and gently placing it on the pallet of lunches destined for the stomachs of hungry children.