Ananya Karthik was wrapping up her first winter quarter at Stanford University when she and 7,000 undergraduates were told the campus would be closing due to the spread of COVID-19. Despite the whirlwind change of becoming a full-time, virtual student, she got to work creating a project to deliver immediate aid for vulnerable populations in the South Bay.

Santa Clara County Helping Hands has now connected dozens of high-risk individuals with volunteers to bring them groceries, prescriptions and virtual companionship, with over 200 low-risk helpers on deck during shelter-in-place orders throughout the Bay Area.

The response for volunteers has been overwhelming, Karthik said, but the group is now hoping to reach more individuals who could use their services. The group has matched 50 volunteers with high-risk individuals, and it can provide support to hundreds more.

“In this time of shelter in place and social distancing, we can help the community get through this pandemic together,” Karthik said. She described the effects of the pandemic for the elderly and immunocompromised as ranging from difficulty obtaining essential items to struggles with isolation and loneliness.

After shelter-in-place orders were called, Stanford University student Ananya Karthik launched Santa Clara County Helping Hands.

So far, Helping Hands has served individuals with multiple sclerosis and such disabilities as  blindness, as well as couples who are both vulnerable to the virus and find it difficult to support each other. Karthik found a large group of volunteers by reaching out to local organizations, including police departments, media and mailing lists at her university, and the group has received heartwarming feedback from its clients.

One person who received support through Helping Hands described their volunteer as a “guardian angel” who dropped off a bouquet of sunflowers and Easter egg candy for the holiday, and another said their volunteer made it a priority to carve out time for them in her busy schedule. 

Contacting senior care and assisted living facilities has been difficult at times due to restrictions in place to protect residents’ health during the pandemic, but many senior centers have been eager for the support, Karthik said. Santa Clara County Helping Hands also reached out to Oakland At Risk, a group doing similar work in Alameda County, and adopted the organization’s safety protocols. 

Each participant, whether volunteer or recipient, receives safety protocols before they begin communicating with each other, and they have to confirm with the organization that they will follow the rules to protect each other’s safety. This includes maintaining social distancing, washing hands before and after handling items from outside, arranging for no-contact delivery with volunteers, maintaining privacy and immediate notification of any illness. Individuals are paired up based on geographic distance from each other and any specific needs they may have.

The project has been a fulfilling one for Karthik, who said she hasn’t yet figured out her future plans, but hopes to find a career in community impact and learning how to best serve peoples’ needs. She’s talking with college students in Los Angeles and Seattle who are working on similar projects, as well as several local organizations, and she hopes Santa Clara County Helping Hands can support the community far into the future. 

“Our work started in response to the crisis, but our long-term vision is to continue this work … and help members of the community receive assistance and find companionship, a goal which I think extends beyond the immediate COVID-19 pandemic crisis,” she said.