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As coronavirus crisis deepens, neighborliness thrives in local cities

Volunteer Lesli Henderson carries bags of groceries to a waiting car outside the Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday as visitors received goods through drive-up distribution.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Though uncertainty and anxiety have become as plentiful as household paper products have become scarce in the new age of coronavirus, good neighborliness remains in strong supply in local cities.

As store shelves began to empty in the past couple of weeks while news related to the virus grew darker and more and more people stocked up on essentials, Huntington Beach resident Tanya Perkins-Valdez figured bottled water might be hard to find.

This week, the item she most needed was distilled water. She had been looking for nearly two weeks as her home supply got low. Her husband, Timothy, has a severe case of sleep apnea, and the distilled water was needed for the humidifier in his CPAP machine, which uses a hose and nosepiece to deliver steady air pressure.

They were down to two days’ worth of distilled water, and Perkins-Valdez was getting nervous.

Her search eventually took her to the Albertsons at the Newland Center, where she called the store while waiting in line for it to open. When she got off the phone, another shopper in line asked why she needed distilled water.

“I said, ‘Oh, for my husband’s CPAP machine,’” Perkins-Valdez said. “That’s when she said, ‘Well, I have a gallon at my house that is unopened and I just use it for cleaning purposes. ... You are more than welcome to come get it.’

“I offered to pay her for it and she said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Later that day, Perkins-Valdez went over to pick up the gallon of distilled water.

“I thought in this time right now, that type of thing, to let a complete stranger come over to your home ... I was just practically crying,” Perkins-Valdez said. “I just thought it was so nice. I didn’t expect that.”

Perkins-Valdez shared the good deed in a Facebook group called “Huntington Beach Community Voice.”

Comments rolled in, including suggestions on where to find distilled water and how to operate a CPAP machine without a humidifier. Others offered some of their supplies of distilled water.

The advice led to the Ralphs store at Meadowlark Plaza, where she bought a few more gallons, enough to feel comfortable again.

Understanding how social media had helped her, Perkins-Valdez let others who might be searching for the same thing know the store still had some in stock.

“You can just feel people’s stress and anxiety and worry,” Perkins-Valdez said. “When you’re talking about a loved one that depends on a machine to sleep and you can’t get what you need, it’s super stressful.”

Elsewhere, “Mutual Aid Orange County,” a small Facebook group that formed last week in response to the coronavirus, brought together residents across local beach communities.

A bartender compiled a growing list of financial resources for laid-off workers.

A couple of women offered female hygiene products for free.

Someone listed examples of grocery stores offering seniors-only shopping hours.

Costa Mesa

Elisa Piazza, 54, a Costa Mesa resident and a care manager for people with Alzheimer’s disease, is thousands of miles from her 84-year-old mother in Sicily, Italy, a nation the virus has hit very hard.

“My mom is isolated at home in Italy and I feel so powerless,” Piazza said in a Facebook post.

But when another person posted about needing someone “to do a grocery run or two for an elderly man in Huntington Beach,” Piazza answered the call and offered to deliver groceries to the man Wednesday afternoon.

She reached out to his daughter in Berkeley, where health officials issued a shelter-in-place order Tuesday. The woman compiled a list of items in her dad’s non-dairy diet that she hoped would be in stock at the stores.

“I thought it’s something nice to do, because I’m in the same situation,” Piazza said Wednesday. “I’m hoping to send the good energy to someone. It comes back.”

By offering help, Piazza hopes to inspire others to see how they too can help their neighbors.

“Helping each other, giving each other a hand, it’s one person at a time,” Piazza said. “We can make that person be in a better place.”

Customers pick up groceries during drive-up distribution outside the Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday. Shoppers normally would go inside the pantry, but it is now serving people outside to follow precautions against the coronavirus.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Costa Mesa resident and professional caregiver Cheryl Skidmore, 62, typically works about 30 hours per week for two people: an 80-year-old woman and an 82-year-old man. But about two weeks ago, when she started receiving emails from her agency warning her to wash her hands and take extra precautions, she decided it was time to offer her skills to the greater community.

“Anyone need a caregiver? Over 15 years’ experience,” she posted on the local Facebook group “Costa Mesa Buzz.”

Two people took her up on the offer — one to care for a cancer patient, the other to help a senior citizen with grocery shopping and cleaning the house. She is available whenever they call.

“There have been quite a few people reaching out, you know, neighbors helping neighbors,” Skidmore said, noting similar Facebook and Craigslist posts by nurses.

Huntington Beach

As the mother of twin autistic boys, Angie St. Jean knows about specific needs.

“I’m part of the special-needs community,” she said. “People with autism need specific foods because they get very specific about what they’ll eat.”

Now the Huntington Beach resident is trying to spearhead efforts to get food and supplies to senior citizens in her community in response to COVID-19, the coronavirus-caused respiratory illness that older people and those with underlying medical conditions can be especially vulnerable to.

St. Jean created a thread on the app Nextdoor, which helps facilitate communication and the exchange of goods and services for people in specific communities. St. Jean, who lives in the Five Points area, got good feedback.

Now she has a handful of new acquaintances who have volunteered to help local seniors find goods. She started a Google Doc that is accessible for all the volunteers to add items or fulfill requests.

St. Jean said she is trying to get the word out in the FountainGlen Seacliff senior apartments.

“There’s like 15 or 20 people who are waiting for whatever somebody needs,” St. Jean said. “We delivered meals to a couple of people. We had one woman who posted that she needed toilet paper. ... She’s disabled and she went to three different stores on the bus to try to get toilet paper. One of the people on our list brought her toilet paper, and she gave them lemons.”

“The people on my list, the people who want to help, they don’t want anything in return,” she said. “They just can’t stand being home knowing that there’s somebody maybe two doors down that needs a loaf of bread.”

St. Jean encourages those who want to help or are in need to email her at angiestjean71@gmail.com.

Volunteers organize goods inside the Laguna Food Pantry for drive-up distribution Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Jody Williams and her husband, Kent, also are looking to help those in need. They have been passing out groceries on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at HisPlace church at 7751 Glencoe Drive in Huntington Beach. Kent plans to cook dinner at 4 p.m. Thursdays for whoever shows, though it will be served to go to comply with Orange County regulations prohibiting in-house dining.

“I can tell you a million stories that would touch your heart, because this is what I do and this is what my husband and I love doing,” said Jody, 55.

Sometimes help can be more spontaneous. Huntington Beach resident Mallorie Slusser, 30, said she met a man named Bill on Monday morning while waiting for a Stater Bros. store to open. He appeared to be in his early 80s and was there to get milk, potatoes, toilet paper and tissues, Slusser said.

“I just needed wine and milk,” Slusser said, adding that she got a few items for Bill.

She saw him again later in the parking lot and offered him a box of tissue paper she bought. He started to tear up.

When she got back to her car, Slusser did too. She later shared the experience on Instagram.

Edie Crabtree, who was put on furlough from her job at Buca di Beppo in Huntington Beach, has been trying to make the most of her extra time. She put out an open invitation on Facebook last week to get groceries for people.

She also consistently browses the community forum in Fountain Valley, where she lives.

“It’s become a really good source of information,” Crabtree said. “What I’m seeing a lot of is people offering, ‘OK, I have extra toilet paper, I have extra chicken, I have extra milk.’ [Tuesday] night I did a mailbox book swap. I picked up some kids’ books and dropped off some adult books through someone’s mailbox, so we’re trading books but not coming in contact with one another.

“I think people are just trying to help where they can, because we’re all figuring it out.”

Laguna Beach

On a cold Wednesday morning in Laguna Canyon, volunteers clad in masks and gloves busily loaded bags of groceries and bouquets of flowers into cars as visitors pulled into the narrow parking lot of the Laguna Food Pantry.

All visitors leave with non-perishable items in addition to some fresh food. Bigger families sometimes get cakes. On a typical day, the pantry serves 100 to 120 shoppers and their families.

Volunteer Chris Etow loads containers filled with bags of groceries for a visitor outside the Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Monday brought a record 188 shoppers to the pantry, officials said. On Tuesday there were 168, and by the end of the morning Wednesday, there had been 120.

“We started out 26 years ago,” said Anne Belyea, executive director for the Laguna Food Pantry. “The reason the pantry was formed was because of the fires [in 1993], then the floods. That’s our history. At that point, we were a full resource helping everyone with rebuilding and food and furniture and clothing and all of that.

“Our focus has been strictly food, but we feel we’re first responders. We want to stay open as long as we can and serve people in need.”

Before concerns about COVID-19, the pantry allowed shoppers to go inside and pick what they wanted. Now the pantry is trying what Belyea calls curbside assistance, in which volunteers will pre-bag food and put it in a visitor’s vehicle to limit contact.

Anne Belyea, Lesli Henderson and Susan Thomas, from left, organize cars and get information from visitors receiving goods during drive-up distribution at the Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“We’re constantly trying to figure out what’s the best way to do this,” said Cynthia Carson, chairwoman of operations for the pantry. “We’ve also changed the kind of food that we’re providing so that we’re providing the proteins, shelf-stable [foods]. Even the produce will be oranges and apples and things that we can put in a bag and they can stay in the bag for a period of time.”

Belyea said the pantry relies on donated groceries from local markets. With grocery store shelves depleted by shoppers worried about the coronavirus, donations are “slim to non-existent,” she said.

The pantry partners with Second Harvest Food Bank of Orange County but is seeking donations. One woman dropped off bananas Wednesday in addition to a $100 donation.

Lake Forest resident Martin Rocha, 60, said he was making his first visit to the Laguna Food Pantry on Wednesday. He said he was picking up food for his family and found the pantry’s location after doing research online.

"[It’s] been challenging at every store. [It’s] challenging finding a location that you can just drive up to and get help,” Rocha said. “I think it’s an excellent job that [the Laguna Food Pantry] has been doing, and I appreciate all their help.”

Newport Beach

Many people are relying on Nextdoor to ask for help and offer it.

This week a 13-year-old boy from Balboa Island posted an offer to help: “Hello. If any seniors or others need help with groceries or anything like that, I will gladly help you. I cannot buy things like alcohol (I’m 13). I will need you to pay me back, and I only accept cash as I don’t have PayPal or Venmo or things like that.”

He went on to explain that he couldn’t carry large quantities of food and water since he’s on a bike.

Readers posted feedback, such as Craig Macomber of Dover Shores: “Nathan, keep doing what you’re doing; you’re already someone I would look up to.”

While some offer help, others are posting requests for toilet paper.

“If you happen to have plenty and can give us one roll, can you give us one? If you leave at our front door or back door, we really appreciate it. In return, we can prevent some kind of bad smell from our house.”

Still others see a win-win opportunity:

“My daughter is selling lemonade tomorrow for 25 cents a glass and giving away a free roll of toilet paper.”

“Have bananas; will trade for tp.”

Sarah Sher of Newport Beach put out a general offer to help on Nextdoor.

As of Tuesday, she hadn’t yet had takers, “but I have helped someone get groceries.”

“The more people that can help, the easier things will be, I think, to come from love and service rather than fear and havoc.”

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