Toronto

'It's really lifesaving': From getting groceries to babysitting, 'caremongering' brings communities together

Online movements that offer good deeds and helpful hands are gaining momentum.

Online movements that offer good deeds and helpful hands are gaining momentum

From buying groceries for seniors to babysitting for essential workers, people are finding creative ways to help their community members during the COVID-19 pandemic.  2:33

"We're sort of all in it together," says Jasmine Saleh, 28, as she prepares to get in line at a No Frills grocery store in Scarborough, Ont. "If I can get out just to support someone a little bit, it's something that I feel is really important to do — especially during this time." 

Saleh goes grocery shopping every day, sometimes twice, to help seniors who are unable or don't feel safe doing it themselves.  

Today she is getting chicken, eggs, carrots and cucumbers for a woman named Doreen.  

Saleh is a volunteer with the Friendly Neighbour Hotline, a service for seniors in community housing in Toronto, that started two weeks ago in response to COVID-19. 

"I try to do maybe one or two a day, just in between my work," says Saleh, who is employed as a social worker. "I did three yesterday."

Jasmine Saleh, a Friendly Neighbour Hotline volunteer, shops and delivers groceries for vulnerable seniors during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The hotline was launched by OpenLab, part of the University Health Network, through a call-out on social media. Councillor Josh Matlow quickly got on board.

"We have 800 volunteers that have signed up, which is totally amazing," says Jen Recknagel, who answers calls to the help line.

Recknagel says they get about 175 calls a day from seniors requesting help. 

"I had a call from a 90-year-old couple who don't speak English, who hadn't eaten in two days, and had no idea how to access food. And you know, we helped get them connected with Meals on Wheels. We brought them groceries. That call really sticks in my mind."

"This service is a blessing," gushes Doreen Alleyne, 77, when Jasmine drops off her groceries.

Alleyne suffers from fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and respiratory problems, and says without the service she'd have to take the risk of exposing herself to the virus by going to a store.

Saleh shops once or twice every day to pick up groceries for seniors in her neighbourhood. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This is the hopeful, heartwarming side of COVID-19 — the spirit of togetherness bred among community members. 

It's been dubbed "caremongering" -— an online movement offering good deeds and helpful hands. Whether it is getting groceries, giving a ride to medical appointments, or picking up prescriptions, a lot of people want to help.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about some community efforts last week.

Some are also offering support specifically to front-line health care workers.

Nelson Saddler is a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto. With his studies on hold, he and fellow students started offering help to health care workers.

"The whole idea was with the rapid escalation in the pandemic, a lot of the health care providers didn't have the systems in place for groceries or for even just coffee drop-off during shifts. Or child care, which is a big one for us," Saddler says. 

"If we can do anything on our own as medical students and provide the service for them so they can be entirely focused on their job, I think that's a win-win."

Doreen Alleyne calls the Friendly Neighbour Hotline 'a blessing.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Saddler and his classmates have rallied more than 500 students from medicine, dentistry and nursing to volunteer their time, helping 250 families. 

Saddler regularly babysits five-year-old Daniel, and Jonanthan, seven — the children of  Dr. Oshri Zaulan, a cardiologist fellow at Sick Kids hospital in Toronto who is on a heightened schedule due to COVID-19. His wife also works in health care. 

"Obviously, with both of us being away and the kids don't have school, it's a huge load on us," Dr. Zaulan explains.

Saddler was assigned to the family within days of volunteering. It's hard to maintain physical distancing when babysitting, so Dr. Zaulan and Saddler remain vigilant about hand-washing, isolating in other aspects of life, and watching for symptoms. The biggest precaution is that a volunteer is assigned to a single family.

Nelson Saddler, a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto, is part of a group offering child care to front line nurses and doctors during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"I really don't know what we would have done," Dr. Zaulan says. "It's really lifesaving, and I really hope that someday I can return this favour to Nelson, because he's really saving us."

And with estimates that physical distancing and isolation could last until July, Saddler says he is willing to offer his help as long as it takes. 

"Coming together to do things for other people is what gets us through this tough time. We are stronger together," Saddler says with a grin. 

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