Despite the mass closure of business and public buildings in Orange County, non-profits and food banks are still asking for volunteers to help at-risk communities in the coming weeks.

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Local nonprofits are losing both funding and volunteer power across the county according to Shelley Hoss, President of the OC Community Foundation.

“The volunteer force has been decimated, and its had a dramatic effect on their ability to serve those in now greater need,” Hoss said.

Hoss also said that food banks are especially hard hit, with the loss of supply from local grocery stores as residents panic purchase food.

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Ana, county officials said that grocery stores would remain open in the coming weeks as access to food is a “necessity.”

“We have this sort of perfect storm of a dramatically increased need. They’re constrained in the food supply and then have this loss of the volunteer force,” Hoss said.

Other nonprofits have also been forced to cut programs or send employees home to manage their funding according to Jason Lascamana, a senior program officer at St. Joseph’s Health Community Partnership Fund.

“With the school closures, there’s a lot of nonprofit providers who do services after school, and because they don’t have schools open, they’re not getting that revenue.” Lascamana said, stating that the financial effects on nonprofits could last months or potentially years.

“Some have had to furlough their employees or lay some employees off. There’s an immediate need, but we’re also currently seeing and foreseeing an economic need for those rippling down in the months ahead.”

On Tuesday afternoon, County Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick issued a Health Officer’s Order that banned all public and private gatherings outside the home, with a series of exceptions that later caused confusion.

While that changes the standard volunteering approaches taken by most nonprofits, Hoss says that there are still opportunities for people to even volunteer from home.

“Nonprofits going to remote may need help with skill-based volunteering,” Hoss said. “Do they have marketing expertise or strategic planning, other kinds of talents that they can offer that they can do remotely by computers or over the phone and not showing up for hands on volunteering, which is pretty much shut down based on this new order.”

Volunteers load pickup trucks with boxes of donations from the Second Harvest Food Bank of OC in Irvine on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

OC Food Bank Coordinator Andre Gaithe said despite the pandemic they still need volunteers to pack food containers for the 25,000 low income senior citizens they serve on a monthly basis.

The program is accepting anybody willing and healthy to volunteer at this time to pack and deliver boxes.

“Regardless of the pandemic, regardless of anything that’s going on. People still need to eat. People still have services that we’re providing for low income people,” Gaithe said.

Over 700 volunteers have canceled on the OC Food Bank because of the spread of the virus, and other local nonprofits have reported similar issues.

“I understand people are spooked out about being away from people. But at the same time, the seniors aren’t able to go to the stores, the seniors aren’t able to kind of gather other areas, they still need to get fed. We’re doing whatever it takes to be on the front lines to get them fed,” Gaithe said.

He said the program is taking the same precautions as the California Department of Social Services and that he sees this as an essential gathering to serve the community.

“We’re running a production line so we are trying to spread out as much as we can while being as efficient as possible,” Gaithe said. “Our welfare is second to serving our community.”

Other volunteers like social worker Maura Mikulec are having to learn how to help the homeless and other affected groups while keeping a distance, a massive shift from their usual stance in the community.

“People who live on the streets are often treated as pariahs by many people in society. And so typically, I try not to do that. I try to hug, shake hands or sit close and not typically show any distancing. But now, I do have to be more conscientious about that and then I have to let people know why,” Mikulec said.

Mikulec said people who are on the streets have poorer health in general.

“We have a lot of people who are diabetic or have (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Definitely, we have a lot of seniors. We have people in high risk categories who aren’t getting as much information as they should. They don’t have opportunities to wash their hands,” Mikulec said.

However, some groups have asked for volunteers to remain at home, or just to send in donations of food and supplies.

“We’ve asked the volunteers to stay away at least through the end of April to reevaluate,” said Dwight Smith, who helps run the Isaiah House in Santa Ana. He said that the primary reason was to protect the homeless from the virus.

“It’s much more likely that the volunteers are going to have coronavirus than the homeless, they don’t have many friends and don’t go very far,” Smith said.

However, all organizations are still asking for more supplies and donations from the community to help, even if in-person volunteering isn’t an option.

Lascamana and Hoss helped start an Orange County Community Resilience Fund through the OC Community Foundation to raise money for local nonprofits and volunteer organizations.

“The intent is to direct funding to those organizations and individuals who’ve been most significantly impaired as a result of a pandemic,” Hoss said.

With an original goal of raising $1 million by the end of the week, the fund has already received over $700,000 in donations according to Hoss.

“By having this pooled fund, we replace duplicate efforts. There’s going to be great need out there, we shouldn’t be duplicating where it doesn’t make sense. With this shared infrastructure and easy way to push out funding rapidly, we can embark on it together,” Lascamana said.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC news intern. Contact him or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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