By Emily Vierthaler
Photo: Jasmijn Doorgeest
— The AUC community entered a state of turbulence following AUC’s decision last Thursday night to cancel on-site classes and move them online due to the coronavirus pandemic. No longer constrained by location, scores of students packed last-minute bags and returned to their respective countries. Still others stayed behind and prepared themselves to hunker down in the dorms for the upcoming weeks.
The day before AUC’s decision, third-year Social Sciences major Carmen Koppert was already thinking of how to mobilise students staying behind in the dorms to help people in isolation.
Koppert wanted to link AUC students to people in Amsterdam Oost who cannot leave their homes due to increased health risks posed by coronavirus, or anxiety about being infected. Students could help with essential tasks like grocery shopping, dog walking, or babysitting the children of healthcare workers.
“I thought, the chances of getting sick are a lot lower for our age group than for older people [who are advised to stay inside], so therefore we have a huge responsibility — the people who are less at-risk, healthy, and don’t have symptoms,” she said.
To reach people in need (a significant portion of whom are elderly and don’t use social media), Koppert began an effort to leave notes with phone numbers in mailboxes.
She then started a Facebook group to coordinate volunteers. Two hundred fifty students joined within the first hour.
Since then, students have distributed over 1200 notes with phone numbers all around Amsterdam Oost.
People in need can call the numbers and tell students what errands they need done for them. Students then post the request in the Facebook group with details such as “person on Molukkenstraat needs help walking dog twice a week”. Healthy and available respondents are then assigned to the task.
The service applies to anything people cannot leave the house for. For example, someone requested a prepaid phone card, and someone else who was ill in the dorms requested a thermometer.
Koppert established a protocol for errands to be done as hygienically as possible to avoid catching the coronavirus and spreading it to those receiving help. The protocol involves washing hands before leaving for errands and avoiding contact with the people being helped (students interested in volunteering should familiarize themselves with it here).
Regarding students who are worried about becoming infected by volunteering, Koppert says it’s a wise thing to be cautious, especially for students with preexisting health conditions, and that personal health is the most important.
She says that though risk is inherent, “if you go to the store and do groceries for yourself, it’s not that much of a bigger risk to do groceries for someone else, because we avoid all contact with others.”
Since buying things for people involves monetary transactions, there is a measure of trust involved. Students currently buy items with their own money and send bank transfer requests via the Tikkie app once the delivery has been received. People unable to transfer money online are asked to wash their hands and leave cash money in an envelope. This way, the recipients can be confident that their needs are in good hands.
Though several errands have been completed, the number of responses to the students’ help-offering notes has been lower than expected. Third year Social Sciences student Amber Roos, who is a volunteer, says, “I think it has to do with trust. A lot of people have been scammed [in the past]. […] It’s just difficult to make them understand that we are trying to help the community and money is not in our interests!”
Koppert calls for everyone, especially students who returned home, to offer direct help to neighbors for the reason that strangers may be less receptive to accepting assistance. “They know you, they trust you, and it’s so much more important to ask for help from people you trust,” she says.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of helping hands. As of this Wednesday, the Facebook group had 367 members.
On Saturday March 14th, Koppert and fellow third-year student Evianne Rovers were featured on TV on Hart van Nederland; the following morning Koppert appeared on Radio 10.
“It felt like getting credit we haven’t earned yet,” Koppert said. “The best thing we can do is get others inspired – if people are watching this and feel like reaching out to their neighbor, that’s good enough for me.”
Roos, who was recently featured on NOS for volunteering, reflects that offering help gave her a sense of community and purpose. “All the students coming together to help others was really nice,” she said.
Disclaimer from Doorgeest: “Dog walking requires significant contact with the recipient of volunteering services. It is impossible to hand off a dog without contact, as opposed to simply dropping off groceries on the front step. All parties involved should carefully consider the risk of exposing or being exposed, and make clear agreements throughout the entire process.”