Look for the helpers: local volunteers at full force during pandemic
COVID-19Helping the elderly and vulnerable

Look for the helpers: local volunteers at full force during pandemic

From food delivery to phone calls, Pittsburgh's Jewish community has sprung into action

Ron Richards stands in front of the car he bought to use as an Uber driver but now uses to pick up groceries for the South Hills community.  Photo proved by Ron Richards.
Ron Richards stands in front of the car he bought to use as an Uber driver but now uses to pick up groceries for the South Hills community. Photo proved by Ron Richards.

Ron Richards stopped taking Uber customers on March 9 due to fears over COVID-19, which was just beginning to infect residents in Pittsburgh and its surrounding communities. He made his decision two weeks before Gov. Tom Wolf issued stay-at-home orders for Allegheny County.

“Before that it was starting to get a little sketchy, but I had my wipes and was being diligent about keeping my car clean,” Richards said. “I picked up a couple at the airport and I got really antsy about it. As soon as they got out of the car, I started wiping everything down in the back and all the doors.”

Shortly after that airport pickup, the South Hills native decided to stop driving for Uber during the pandemic and to instead look for ways to help others however he could.

“I had already made myself available to a few people, but I mentioned to Rabbi Aaron Meyer that I was available to deliver food to people from Temple Emanuel of South Hills at no charge,” said Richards.

Across the Pittsburgh Jewish community, volunteers have stepped up to help those most vulnerable to the coronavirus. While some individuals and companies have had the ability to deliver thousands of face masks and other proactive gear to first responders and vital organizations in need, others are working to make a difference in their own backyard.

Leslie Miller volunteers with the Jewish Association on Aging, visiting residents at the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, but due to guidelines put in place by the JAA, Miller is unable to visit the residents she used to see on a regular basis.

Miller, who is retired, volunteers with the JAA because she wants to give back to her community.

“It’s a wonderful place. They take such good care of people and I miss everyone there very much,” she said.

Miller has made a couple of “very good friends” at Charles Morris, she said, and has maintained those friendships even without seeing the residents in person.

“I sent one person some books because she’s an avid reader, with another I talk on the phone,” Miller explained. “I send cards to another lady, anything to just try and stay connected.”

It is Miller’s goal to help the residents remain positive, but she acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on the seniors with whom she is in touch.

“It’s very tough,” she said. “I offer a lot of reassurances, but they are isolated.”

Nina Butler is a member of Congregation Poale Zedeck and is part of the team assembled by Rebbetzin Anna Yolkut to reach out to the congregation’s senior and most vulnerable members.

“We combed through our membership creating a spreadsheet,” Butler explained, “and then we went through the membership again, almost like matchmakers.” The volunteers worked to pair seniors with other members who had “the time and patience to be able to reach out several times per week for a warm and leisurely call.”

The goal was to have the pairs assembled before Passover because, for many, it would be their first holiday alone.

“We were fortunate that every member we asked to make these ‘reaching out’ phone calls enthusiastically accepted immediately and expressed disappointment that we didn’t have more names to give them,” Butler said.

Congregation members have been thrilled with the volunteer outreach, according to Yolkut.

“It’s been wonderful to see that many of the seniors we have reached out to expressed that what we’re doing is above and beyond by people in their community of their own initiative,” she said. “Many people said they feel wrapped in support. They have neighbors reaching out, they have friends reaching out, and they have family reaching out.”

Lynn Rubenson is a member of Temple Sinai who has assisted in the past with cooking food for the Reform temple’s “caring freezer.”

“A bunch of us get together a couple of times a year and make vegetable lasagna or soup or quiches or bread. It’s usually pretty full,” she said. “When everyone had to start shutting down, we got a few calls from people who couldn’t get to the store or were waiting for financial resources to come in, so I delivered food to them.”

The assistance Rubenson and Temple Sinai have provided extended to those beyond the congregation’s membership.

“We received a call from an elderly woman who lives with her adult daughter who has a disability. She isn’t a member but called Temple looking for help, so I brought her over a big bag of food,” Rubenson said.

Rubenson has also worked within the larger community as well.

“Early on, someone had posted on the app Nextdoor that they had an unopened box of 100 surgical masks,” she said. “I knew that Charles Morris was looking for more masks. I was able to pick them up from this woman’s porch and drop them off at Charles Morris.”

For Rubenson, volunteering is part and parcel of the Jewish community’s mission.

“I think people are doing what they might be doing on an everyday basis, they’re just stepping it up more,” she said. “It’s just what we should be doing for each other.”

Janice Keilly is one of the Temple Emanuel members Richards has shopped for since he stopped driving for Uber.

“When this started and I could not get out, I called Ron and said, ‘I will gladly pay you to do this shopping for me,’” recalled Keilly. “He told me he was not accepting any payments. He said he would do it because he wanted to help me. He suggested I could donate to Rabbi Meyer’s discretionary fund because he’s going to be using that money to help people who are having difficulties.”

Keilly said that she and Richards have developed a symbiotic shopping relationship: “I feel like I don’t even have to give him a list anymore. He knows what I use and what I eat and sometimes even calls me with suggestions from the store.”

The South Hills senior is appreciative of the help Richards has provided.

“He has never said no,” she said. “It works out beautifully. I can’t believe how kind a person can be, how kind Ron Richards is.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.