THE NEEDIEST CASES FUND
As their communities’ needs shifted amid the pandemic, these neighbors offered help.
On a blustery day in May, Vanessa Fransen rolled her wagon up to a house in Makoti, N.D. She deposited a bundle on the doormat, rang the doorbell and sprinted away. But this wasn’t your typical ding-dong-ditch: When her neighbors opened their door, they found a bag full of books.
“May Day surprise!” Vanessa hollered.
In the midst of the pandemic, this was the way that Vanessa, 12, helped people in her community feel less alone.
Her desire to make a difference through books began two years ago, when she saw a Little Free Library box in a neighboring town. Makoti does not have a public library, and residents rely on a county bookmobile or travel dozens of miles for library services. The Free Library’s free-standing model seemed like a great fit.
“It was all her idea,” Vanessa’s mother, Laura Fransen, said. “I didn’t even know Little Free Libraries were a thing. And then we found out it’s a worldwide, global phenomenon.”
In 2018, Vanessa installed the library in her town square. The next summer, she added a community garden, so that Makoti residents could enjoy a snack and view along with a book.
This spring, when the coronavirus brought everything to a halt — including the bookmobile — Vanessa saw another opportunity to help.
With a grant from First Book, one of 10 organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, Vanessa purchased 160 books to distribute to more than 40 families across her community.
“We tried to pick books that their families could use,” Ms. Fransen said, including cookbooks and coloring books with postcards people could send to loved ones.
In August and October, Vanessa worked with First Book again, this time focusing on Makoti’s younger residents. Through the nonprofit, she got 140 additional books; 90 of them were from the Magic Tree House series and were provided thanks to a donation from the author, Mary Pope Osborne. She distributed them to children around her community as well as to a local school and the Little Free Library.
Vanessa, who recently started seventh grade, hopes Ms. Osborne’s books, which combine history and education with adventure, will help children feel less isolated.
“What I love about reading is that it takes you to different places and you learn about new things,” she said.
Ms. Fransen added, “Right now, when everything’s being taught virtually, it’s important for kids to have a tangible book in their hands.”
It’s been particularly rewarding, Vanessa says, to know she’s making a difference where she lives.
Joyce Bryant and Virginia Moses, friends from Brooklyn who are both 70, echoed that sentiment. They are retired — Ms. Bryant was a home care worker, and Ms. Moses worked at an electronics store — but neither is content to relax.
“Retirement is not just sitting down,” Ms. Bryant said. “You have to keep this mind going.”
“And these legs!” Ms. Moses added.
In 2018, concerned about their Fort Greene community’s access to affordable fresh food, especially for those receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Ms. Bryant and Ms. Moses helped organize the Farragut Food Club. The group is a co-op that allows residents to order food from online retailers and have it delivered to Farragut Cornerstone, a community center run by Brooklyn Community Services, one of the organizations supported by The Fund.
When the city locked down in March, Brooklyn Community Services turned to Ms. Bryant and Ms. Moses, who helped identify people in need of assistance. Kent Victor, the director of Farragut Cornerstone, said they had helped the organization distribute food to more than 1,500 families struggling from the economic effects of the pandemic.
“It was really a miracle how people came together and showed love and care,” Ms. Bryant said.
Bonnie and Ned Rogers, both 74, have also spent their retirement helping others. They were born and raised on Staten Island, met in college on a blind date and have been married for 52 years. In 2000, after retiring from the telecom industry, Ms. Rogers saw an ad in her church newsletter for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, run by Community Service Society, another organization supported by The Fund.
“I wasn’t quite old enough at the time to join,” Ms. Rogers explains, “but they let me be a sort of welcome volunteer.”
Two years later, when a friend and fellow volunteer passed away, the program asked if Ms. Rogers could take over his route for Meals on Wheels, a food assistance program for seniors. Mr. Rogers joined her after he retired in 2004, and they’ve been working it as a team ever since.
“You have a route with dedicated people, and over time you establish a relationship with them,” Mr. Rogers said. “A lot of the clients are homebound, and they look forward every day to having this interaction with somebody.”
Those relationships were brought to an abrupt halt by the pandemic. In March, the service shifted to providing weekly deliveries of frozen food instead of prepared food five days a week, and volunteers like Mr. and Ms. Rogers were put on the bench.
“We really missed it,” Mr. Rogers said. “While volunteering, we give back, but there’s a lot we receive from doing it, too. It’s not true altruism. It gives us a reason for being.”
In May, Mr. and Ms. Rogers returned to their Meals on Wheels route as community organizations found ways to adapt.
The couple worried about those whom they hadn’t seen in weeks. But on their first day back, they were pleased to see many familiar faces. “The thank you’s, the smiles — even with masks on — were wonderful,” Ms. Rogers said.
The couple is hopeful that the difficulties of the pandemic will inspire more people to give back, as is Ms. Bryant.
“If more people got involved in their community, it would make it better for everybody,” Ms. Bryant said. “Maybe this is the wake-up call we need for everyone to come together.”