Coronavirus Spurs Neighbors in S.F.’s Sunset District to Create Mutual Aid Society

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Neighbors in the Sunset District gathered groceries to distribute to those in need in the wake of the shelter-in-place order. Photo courtesy of Frank Plughoff.

In less than two weeks, a well-meaning post in a neighborhood Facebook group has evolved into an extremely organized support system for an entire community during the time San Francisco’s COVID-19 shelter-in-place order is in effect.

The Sunset Neighborhood Help Group directly connects residents with elderly and at-risk neighbors who need help buying groceries and running errands. The group is made up entirely of volunteers who come from a wide range of backgrounds and abilities.

So far, the group has more than 850 members and has helped over 70 people.

Full-time artist and Sunset resident Bianca Nandzik and neighbor Frank Plughoff, a former printing industry worker, created the group on Facebook on March 13 after Plughoff saw a post from Nandzik offering to pick up groceries for anyone unable to leave the house. By the next morning, the new group had over 150 members.

News about the Sunset Neighborhood Help Group began to spread and soon caught the attention of District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar. Mar reached out to Nandzik and her husband, Stefan Nandzik, directly. “He invited all the stakeholders of nonprofits to a conference call to see what the needs of the community are during the crisis,” Bianca Nandzik said.

Reaching the elderly

As more people joined the group wanting to help, the organizers realized many of the elderly who need help are not on Facebook and would not see the group’s message.

Mandarin interpreter and trainer Celia Wu saw a post from organizers suggesting fliers be distributed and offered to help translate the fliers into Chinese. Another core member of the group volunteered to coordinate and organize flier distribution. A color coordinated map was made, blocks were assigned and volunteers set out.

A week later, almost every house in the Sunset had received a flier with information about the support group, as well as a number for a help hotline set up with a voice recording in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Messages are transcribed and sent to a case management system. The hotline and case management system were set up by Stefan Nandzik, who has a background in technology product and brand marketing.

Understanding what the needs are

Volunteers with social work experience screen each call before sending out requests in the Facebook group. That’s important, they said, because understanding what people need is not always straightforward.

“You can ask, how can I help you, but a lot of times people don’t know how to answer that,” said Christina Leung, a group member who works with seniors and people with disabilities, and uses that background to assess the needs of callers. “You have to be a little bit different with your questions,” continued Leung. “Where did you get your food today? What did you eat for dinner? What did you have for lunch? Who comes over? It takes a little bit more time to feel those questions out.”

Usually requests for help are met within a few hours after being posted.

The Facebook page is full of photos of groups volunteering at the First United Presbyterian Church’s food bank, stories of budding relationships between volunteers and elderly people, frequent updates from the administrators and inspiring posts from the community.

Encouraging anyone who needs help to post

When single mom Jessica Kwalick posted on the group that she was on day 14 of quarantine with her 4-year-old son who is sick with pneumonia and adenovirus and needed help getting groceries, the response was instant.

“Asking for help was extremely hard for me to do,” Kwalick said. “My grandma is 97 and I talk to her every day and I’m making sure she is getting the help she needs. But I need help too, you know?”

The next morning, someone delivered her groceries free of charge. Someone else offered to help pick up any other essential household supplies. Another volunteer asked her if she needed anything from Costco, and a man with a food truck offered to deliver her and her son a barbecue dinner once a week. Other single mothers reached out to share their support.

Many people messaged Kwalick telling her how brave she was to ask for help. Until she posted her note, most of the requests in the group had come from elderly people. But many single parents with young children, especially sick ones, are in the same boat — unable to leave the house for groceries and struggling to make ends meet.

The Sunset Neighborhood Help Group’s ability to change on a day-to-day basis depending on the needs of the community is what makes it so useful, said Stefan Nandzik. “It could go a whole different direction depending on what the feedback is,” he said. “This is the beauty of this huge volunteer network: There’s always going to be somebody who can help.”

The Sunset Neighborhood Help Group can be reached by phone, email, and Facebook.

Hotline number: (415) 212-8770

Email: contact@sunsethelpers.org

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Volunteers prepare grocery bags to fill with food to deliver to neighbors. Photo courtesy of Frank Plughoff.
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Ellen Isaac, 96-year-old Sunset resident, receives a grocery delivery from Frank Plughoff. Photo courtesy of Frank Plughoff.