Yesterday I critiqued a conservative piece that, among other things, decried a loss of “the why of America.” The writer argued that we had lost a sense of the ends to which we are, collectively, committed.
I criticized them for not offering any sense of what the “why of America” should be but also because they appeared to be describing an American response to COVID-19 that is petty, laden with public shaming, and unconcerned about the well-being of neighbors.
I noted that public shaming does happen but asked, “Do they characterize how we collectively and overwhelmingly deal with this crisis in real communities where most of us live? Not at all.”
I said that because of my experience in Yolo, my home county, at the outbreak of the epidemic. My story is an important one and indicates that there is a shared “why of Yolo” in these challenging times.
At the same time that our governor was issuing shelter in place orders, the Yolo Food Bank undertook to deliver food to the doorsteps of vulnerable people: those over age 65 or with a medical condition that increased their risk of adverse outcomes should they contract the virus.
I helped organize volunteers for this effort and, if you forget everything else, remember this statistic: 1 for every 4. As people began to sign up to have food delivered to their door, we simultaneously accepted sign-ups for volunteers who would deliver it.
Over the six weeks I was involved (the program ran for more than two months), we also had approximately one volunteer for every four people that signed up for the service. Over 900 signed up to deliver food to just over 3,000 total households (over 6,000 people).
Pause to consider the statement of the “why of Yolo” that these numbers represent.
And the volunteers did not merely deliver food. Dozens helped to correct data that recipients incorrectly entered into a GIS-based database. This enabled those doing the deliveries to be much more efficient in their work.
One Saturday afternoon, I realized we needed Spanish, Russian, and possibly other language translations. Within an hour of requesting help via social media, I had translation support for each and a UC Davis student group’s commitment to identify translations for a dozen more languages as needed.
These translators worked in real-time when drivers were out making deliveries, contacting people while drivers waited to identify the precise location for deliveries.
Other volunteers made daily phone calls to people to respond to needs, collect corrected information, and assure that volunteers had what they needed to do their work.
A church, a small business, and various community service groups offered larger trucks and vans to deliver to sizeable senior apartment complexes. Community leaders in one town adopted a senior complex in their town and did all deliveries in that location.
Others packed boxes, and one company helped transport boxes to a distribution site so that volunteers could deliver them from that site.
Volunteers did address troubleshooting on the spot and found out of the way addresses to assure deliveries.
Many of those doing deliveries begged to keep the same recipients week to week because they were building relationships of trust with the recipients and wanted to make sure that all their needs were met.
When recipients requested additional support, local church groups stepped in to provide it.
A local produce company offered its drivers to make 150 deliveries every week.
At each delivery site, other volunteers ensured that drivers maintained safe distancing and got answers to questions.
And this went on day after day, week after week, for three months.
Maybe America has lost its “why”–its raison d’etre, its sense of shared purpose. But during six weeks starting in March 2020, I was privileged to see firsthand the “why of Yolo”:
- reducing the spread of a deadly disease
- protecting the most vulnerable in our community
- meeting the basic needs of neighbors.
These are the “whys of Yolo.