For years now Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has been recognized nationally as a day of service in honor of a civil rights leader who defined greatness as serving others in the community.
For many here in Orange County, the global pandemic has allowed many residents and people who volunteer in the county to really live out that message.
Throughout the past year, people have repeatedly stepped up to help out each other, even risking being infected by the virus and potentially spreading it to a loved one.
Meet some of those residents that have spent the past year serving their community during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Orange County Deputy Juvenile Correctional Officer Yuri Williams put on a mask way before the pandemic gripped life in the county back in March last year.
Williams dresses up as superheroes and visits low income families, the elderly, veterans, homeless people as well as adults and children with illnesses. He hands out food, clothes and toys.
“As a kid, I always looked up to superheroes. They wear a mask and they’re doing good deeds and saving the world and whatnot and you don’t know who’s underneath that mask and that’s how I feel,” Williams said. “You don’t see people dressed up coming to help that often so they’re caught off guard and then they laugh and giggle and then that’s when I’m able to dig in and see if I can help you.”
Williams said his inspiration to help was his mother – his favorite superhero – who he lost to cancer in 2009.
“I started out here serving the houseless out in the riverbed, and over there by the annex a couple years ago, and I just had to do something to keep my mind from thinking about my mom all the time,” he said.
Williams started his own nonprofit called A Future Superhero and Friends where he continues to serve communities and has gone around 50 states twice helping out. He is a Long Beach resident but he does outreach with homeless individuals in the county.
While the pandemic has stopped Williams from visiting hospitals and the elderly, he still visits the homeless people maintaining his distance and wearing a mask.
“I wear this cape so I can’t sit back and not help people,” Williams said. “There’s no greater gift than giving back … that feeling of just giving back every time it just makes me want to keep doing it and doing it.”
New Yorker turned Irvine resident Lorraine Ghent had been volunteering for years with a couple of organizations in Orange County like the Second Harvest Food Bank before the pandemic hit.
Even the pandemic affected where she could serve that didn’t stop her from a new place to volunteer.
Ghent has been helping out Working Wardrobes, a nonprofit that helps people get jobs and provides professional outfits for people on job interviews, where she collects clothes being donated
“People drive up and I ask them if they’re donating and I get a rack for them and help them put the clothes on the rack,” she said.
Because of the pandemic, Working Wardrobes have taken their work outside as a safety precaution as well as wearing masks, gloves and social distancing.
Ghent said because the work is being done outside she feels safe.
“It’s just good to give back, it makes you feel good,” Ghent said. “I think that’s my basic thing – is to always help people.”
Esteban Jimenez grew up in Garden Grove down the street from Disneyland where he worked as a main entrance supervisor before he was furloughed due to the pandemic.
Jimenez started to volunteer around September with the Community Action Partnership of Orange County at their family resource center called Anaheim Independencia where he helped distribute food to people in need.
“I wanted to give back to my community in one way or another,” Jimenez said.
He said he heard about an opportunity to volunteer from a friend working at the resource center – a place where Jimenez’s grandma used to go to play Loteria and pass the time before she passed away.
“It just meant a whole lot more to me to to know that I was going to be volunteering at a place where my grandmother used to spend lots of time and a place where I have many memories with her that I would go and pick her up and see her smiling after having such a great time there,” Jimenez said.
He stopped in mid-December due to a coronavirus scare at the resource center. Jimenez said there was a fear of catching the virus but knowing there were people more vulnerable to the virus than him in need of support kept him going.
“People just don’t have that privilege to be going out and risking it so I just always thought about them, and I said you know what I just I have to go out there and do this, it’ll be for them. I will be extra safe. I’ll carry extra hand sanitizer. I’ll make sure to wear gloves and a mask,” Jimenez said.
Yasmin Jivraj has been volunteering with Uplift Charity’s monthly food distributions at the Al Ansar mosque in Anaheim every month during the pandemic.
Jivraj heads the monthly distributions and added that volunteering during the pandemic has been a little bit stressful.
“I’m still very passionate about serving the community. It makes a big difference to the people around knowing that they’re not alone, we’re all with them,” Jivraj said.
Uplift Charity is a Muslim non-profit that works to help those in need become self sufficient. Jivraj got involved with the nonprofit after reading about them on Facebook.
Jivraj said since the pandemic the number of people volunteering has gone down.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re behind the 10th hour but we manage. We have a strong internal team,” she said
Jivraj said anyone who is hesitant to volunteer right now should keep their faith up and that if they do choose to volunteer they must take the necessary precautions.
“It strengthens our community. You learn a lot about what people are going through. I’m a little more empathetic,” Jivraj said.
South County Resident Tara Hitchcock has been volunteering through Americorps at Grandma’s House of Hope, a nonprofit that works to provide housing for homeless people and has a food distribution program at schools called Nana’s Kids.
“I think with COVID-19, our shift was more towards now people that were volunteers and now those people that helped us, they were the people in need,” Hitchcock said. “We really shifted our focus in the Nana’s Kids program by providing food to those families that were food insecure and these are families that were recently laid off, that couldn’t go to work all of a sudden due to this pandemic.”
Hitchcock got involved before the pandemic having felt a need to help out locally and not wanting to ignore the people struggling in Orange County.
“I had the privilege of living in an area like Laguna Niguel, Dana Point where that got kind of ignored,” Hitchcock said. “You hear about people protesting against a homeless shelter wanting to be built in Irvine, you just hear these things and it’s just it really broke my heart in that sense.”
Hitchcock worked for months during the pandemic with the food program getting paid a stipend for her efforts through Americorps- a domestic version of the Peace Corps. Now she works as service coordinator for Grandma’s House of Hope.
Hitchcock said being able to provide direct assistance to people in need was amazing.
“Just seeing that person to person interaction, even with a mask while socially distancing, I think that is extremely rewarding,” she said.
17-year-old Northwood High Senior Celeste Webb has been volunteering with the Zero Waste Initiative since July last year.
“I started volunteering in the middle of COVID and I was kind of getting a lot of cabin fever. I felt like I wasn’t really doing much with my life and I was just kind of sitting here,” Webb said.
The initiative started by an Irvine high school student takes the uneaten bagels from cafes and bagel shops to organizations in the county that feed people in need. They have rescued $90,000 worth of food.
Webb helps the initiative get the bagels they need from the businesses they’ve partnered with.
“I have time and I’m personally not really struggling in this, I’m really well off. But the thing is, I know that a lot of people have been really heavily impacted by this,” Webb said. “Volunteering doesn’t have to be anything huge. It could be something as simple as driving around picking up bagels so even a little bit will do a lot of help.”
Dr. Anita Wang
It’s not just volunteers who are stepping up during the pandemic. Countless doctors, nurses and medical professionals have been on the frontline for almost a year now putting their own health and their families health on the line.
One of them is Dr. Anita Wang who is not a volunteer but has been working at South Coast Global Medical Center Emergency room and other hospitals as well as working at the overflow tents that have been setup.
Wang said being on the frontlines of the pandemic has been very, very difficult.
“It just takes a toll on you,” Wang said. “You go into a deep, deep abyss, and you just don’t see that there’s a way out of it, because they keep coming in.”
Wang has worked during the first and second waves of the virus in the county. To deal with the toll of seeing families lose loved ones and patients not being allowed to be with their families before they die, she has decided to take a step back and work less hours.
“It’s been very difficult because I’ve always been the one to jump into the emergency. I’m the one that wants to run and be there to help,” Wang said. “My mother will be 90. My boys are 14 and they see it on the news. They’re concerned for me they don’t want me to get exposed. They know that I am a high risk.”
Wang said when she sees a medical need her heart just pulls her to help.
“I thought that had died in the first round. I thought I was spent,” Wang said. “And then I got the call to help out again and this part was there and I thought oh, it’s not dead. It’s still there. I just need to scale back.”
The county’s main volunteer agency, OneOC will be holding a virtual dinner today at 5 p.m. in collaboration with the Orange County Food Bank featuring special guests to discuss issues impacting County residents. People can register to intend online.
“Think of it as kind of the Sunday supper style where we’ll really allow folks to kind of engage in conversation around living the values of Martin Luther King Jr. and why this day is important,” said Amanda Green, public information officer for the emergency volunteer center, which was activated last year at the start of the pandemic.
Green said since the start of the pandemic they’ve mobilized over 4,400 volunteers.
The Emergency Volunteer Center put out an urgent request earlier this month calling for medically trained and general support volunteers to help out with the distribution of the vaccine.
“We have over 1,500 people already pre-registered to be ready to be contacted when their services are needed,” Green said. “We anticipate getting many, many, many more volunteers that are needed to participate in those efforts.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @[email protected] or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.