Volunteers on the Front Line

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At DCFD Station 1 at 2225 M St. NW: firefighters with Fairmont GM Mark Huntley and his dog Georgie, who deliver food to first responders. Photo by Diana Bulger.

In early March, Amber Seyler, a freelance filmmaker in Eastern Market, answered a call for volunteers on Facebook. Like many Washingtonians, she wanted to help others during the approaching quarantine, but didn’t know how. It’s hard to lend a helping hand from six feet away.

But Seyler knew she had something to contribute. “I knew I’d be good with details and logistics,” she says.

She immediately began pairing volunteers with people who needed grocery deliveries, using spreadsheets and rapidfire communications. Nearly a month later — having commandeered a group of 3,000 do-gooders, fired up and ready to go — she is hunched over a computer, working 14-hour days.

Every evening, she sends her volunteer army an email with a list of organizations in need of extra hands and ways for people to assist those who are struggling. Some need food, others may need baby products. Many just want a kind word in the desert of isolation.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how we have this enormous group of amazing volunteers, and many of you seem to have superpowers,” she wrote in her April 14 email. “You are doctors, nurses, therapists, community activists, academics in all sorts of topics … you’re a bunch of DC-style smarty-pants with compassion and the motivation to help others.”

Seyler is inspiring others and working well into the night — without pay and uncertain of her own livelihood; her unemployment application has been stymied by bureaucracy. But she is one of the many faces of light in our community. We may be quarantined, but our big hearts remain unchained.

The experience has been “rewarding but really frustrating,” Seyler says. “By the time some of our people get what they need, they haven’t eaten in a day. Their kids haven’t eaten in a day.”

The generosity of others brings her back to positivity. “Some have said they want to donate their stimulus checks. They don’t need it.”

Seyler has started Food on the Table, a spin-off of The Table Church DC whose Director of Care Alli McGill sent the social-media post that got Seyler’s attention. McGill, a mother of four, has put her own safety on the line taking provisions to homes and scouring stores every day looking for in-demand items like Lysol for the volunteer ministry.

“I change my clothes immediately when I get home,” she explains, adding that, as a precaution, she doesn’t take her children inside stores with her. “The DMV gets a bad rap,” McGill says, but the outpouring of support she sees gives her renewed faith in the goodness of area residents.

McGill has struck up a friendship with a woman she calls “Miss Violet,” an elderly resident in Northeast D.C. who needed deliveries and someone to talk to. “We talk by phone a few times a day. My kids love her. We’re hoping she can come for Christmas dinner if we’re able to gather by then.”

Consider a home on Reservoir Road. Not a standout, the house has a modest elegance that fits with those around it. But every Wednesday, there are multiple bags of groceries at the front door, a weekly collection by neighbors for Martha’s Table, a nonprofit working to make “strong children, strong families, and strong communities in D.C.”

While the education center at Martha’s Table is closed, the organization is providing those in need with gift cards, weekly stipends, and at-home learning technology. As of April 15, Martha’s Table’s COVID-19 campaign has nearly 1,700 supporters.

Also on April 15, Mark Huntley, general manager and regional vice president of Fairmont Washington, D.C., delivered the hotel’s signature paella to first responders at its M Street neighbor, DCFD Engine 1. Hotel mascot Georgie, Huntley’s Labrador, was there to lend some canine love.

Giving blood is another highly effective, and cost-free, way to help. A spokesperson for Children’s National said that blood donation appointments, both on-site and through the hospital’s mobile program, have been booking up, thanks to the growing spirit of giving.

Blood donations don’t directly help COVID-19 patients, but with the cancellation of community blood drives due to social distancing there has been a worrisome downturn in giving blood nationwide.

The hospital has appointments available starting next month. Appointments can be made online at childrensnational.org. How long does The Table’s Alli McGill think this quarantine, and her efforts, will last? She sounded undaunted, even as the news broke that the lockdown would continue through May 15. Her response: “We will be here as long as we can.”

A gift of three pizza pies for hospital personnel. Courtesy MedStar.
Chef and restaurateur José Andrés stands in front of America Eats Tavern at 3139 M Street, while talking to World Central Kitchen staffers on the phone and being interviewed by “60 Minutes.” Photo by Robert Devaney.
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