Editor’s note: Our series On the Front Lines recognizes those in the community who are confronting the coronavirus pandemic head-on, while the rest of us do our part by stepping back.
The Spokane Regional Health District announced the first cases of COVID-19 in Spokane County on March 14. The same day, four women in Cheney created the West Plains Emergency Response Volunteers group on Facebook to help quarantined people get essential items delivered to their doors.
Chris Valeo is the director of English studies at Eastern Washington University and was chatting with former student Jamie Ewen about the need to support quarantined families in metro areas like Seattle and New York.
“I think we imagined the worst,” Valeo said. “We knew people in this West Plains community would want to help. It’s just that kind of community.”
At the time, the Cheney School District was moving to distance learning, as was EWU.
As Ewen and Valeo chatted, they realized the wide range of people who might need help. Valeo thought of her students, who might be stuck without their usual community supports; of elderly people whose children had moved away; and of single parents who might be struggling with whether or not to take the risk and bring their kids to the grocery store with them.
“Eventually, we were all going to need each other, and we needed to be ready to respond,” Valeo said.
So the women reached out to friends and began planning.
Ewen is getting her master’s degree in social work at EWU and thought a confidential community-based delivery system for items like prescriptions and groceries would be key for high-risk families or people who don’t feel safe leaving their homes.
“We knew people would be in need, we knew people would want to help and we just wanted to connect that as quickly and as confidentially as we could,” Valeo said.
The women asked Kelley Cullen, an economics professor at EWU to help with the paperwork needed to set up a nonprofit and a bank account to take donations. Cheney resident and Eastern alum Heidi Monter joined the team to help connect with outreach and managing volunteers.
The women launched the group just three days after discussing the idea.
The group serves people in the Cheney School District area, which includes the 360-square-mile area of the West Plains.
The idea was a hit, and hundreds of people joined the Facebook group over the first weekend.
At that time, COVID-19 test results were taking up to a week, “so someone being responsible would be housebound,” Valeo said.
A local nurse initially volunteered but then her baby got sick and she was the one who needed a delivery, Valeo said. The nurse became one of the group’s first clients.
Someone in need can message Ewen with a request, whether it be a grocery list, prescription pickup or something else. Ewen then gives the family a number on the volunteer spreadsheet. The volunteer is tasked with assembling the items and is sent an address. The volunteer then drops the items into a cooler the person in need leaves on their front porch.
The only person who ever knows the person’s name is Ewen.
If able, people can pay WPEV through Venmo for the items. But if not, the nonprofit has a bank account at Cheney Federal Credit Union for donations to cover the cost of essentials.
Currently, the group has almost 700 members on Facebook and has helped dozens of families.
“Honestly, I don’t even know who we’ve helped,” Valeo said with a laugh.
The group is having an impact on volunteers, those in need and organizers alike.
“I think it helped the four of us involved to stave off that panic,” Valeo said. “You’re not going to be home alone sick, someone is here for you.”
For people who feel comfortable heading to the store, volunteering is as easy as signing up in the group and buying someone else’s grocery list when going to the store for the volunteer’s own family, Valeo said.
The group has also turned into a place to match needs with supply, Valeo said.
“We’re sharing information, we’re sharing resources, we’re sharing skills and needs,” Valeo said.
Valeo encouraged families who may not live in the area but are worried about a loved one to join the group as well.
“Distance is irrelevant,” Valeo said.
Things like checking on a loved one or picking up groceries for someone who missed a store’s “senior hours” are what the group is there for, Valeo said.
“We thought we could help folks not need to take risks,” Valeo said.
Ultimately, Valeo said she hopes the group has let people know help is out there.
“What I hope it has done, too, is reassure people that there’s someone here for you,” Valeo said. “There are 682 someones here for you.”