How to volunteer your time during the coronavirus pandemic

  • The coronavirus quarantine has left people with an excess of free time; here's how you can use that time to help the community.

  • Sewing masks for healthcare workers and homeless shelters is an important initiative that can offer protection to the people who need it most.

  • Some things you can do to care for the mental health of the population include volunteering for a crisis hotline or writing cards to residents in isolation in nursing homes.

Many of us now have more time on our hands than ever before, all blending into a haze of puzzles and baking and movie marathons.

It's important to stay home, but it's natural to feel a sense of helplessness whiling away time with board games and Netflix while the most vulnerable of the population have been left without masks, without access to food, and without company.

Here's how you can use your extra time to serve communities hit the hardest by the pandemic.

You can sew face masks to donate to healthcare workers and people in need

The CDC recently released a guide demonstrating how you can sew fabric masks at home, saying that even simple cloth masks can help slow the spread of the virus. To make your own, you'll need cotton fabric, string or rubber bands, a bobby pin, scissors, and a sewing machine.

While a homemade mask is no substitute for an N-95 respirator, a hand-sewn mask can still provide valuable protection. In fact, a homemade mask should be your choice for personal protection, since healthcare workers desperately need surgical masks and N-95s.

With PPE supplies dwindling, hospital employees are using whatever is available to them to protect against infection. Some workers have been wearing the cloth masks over surgical masks or respirators, in order to prolong the lifespan of precious PPE equipment. Cotton masks are invaluable in nursing homes, for nonmedical hospital staff, and in healthcare settings all over the country.

One small study determined that, although surgical masks were three times as effective as fabric masks in preventing infection, "both masks significantly reduced the number of microorganisms expelled" by wearers.

You can donate your homemade masks to your local hospital or through a national effort like Masks 4 Medicine or Joann's 100 million masks initiative.

Healthcare workers also aren't the only ones in need of masks. Communities across the nation desperately in need of protective equipment for their homeless population. Since most of the PPE supply chain is diverted to hospitals, COVID-19 is sweeping through underserved communities. In New York City alone, the virus has been detected in at least 77 different homeless shelters. Please contact your local homeless shelter to set up a donation.

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Write letters to boost the spirits of seniors in hospitals and nursing homes

Many nursing homes have completely cut off all visitation in order to stop the spread of the virus. This has created a need for family members to visit their relatives through windows or teach seniors to use video calling apps.

But not all the elderly people in nursing homes have relatives or friends to help them feel less lonely during the pandemic. Nursing home residents are feeling the emotional toll of isolation, and nurses and caregivers are calling for the public to send cards to brighten the day, reports USA Today.

This is an especially great project for children whose schooling has been interrupted and are currently sitting at home with nothing to do. A group of young siblings recently made national news for their touching, crayon-happy letters to seniors -- and you can follow in their footsteps.

Reach out to your local nursing homes, hospice programs, or hospitals to see how you can help.

Provide support through a virtual hotline

This pandemic has bred feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety in the general population. Even if you are not being treated for a mental health disorder, it's hard to ignore the toll that social isolation and widespread fear takes on your state of mind. Now, more than ever, people are desperately in need of someone to lend a comforting ear.

Crisis hotlines are overwhelmed with callers who are grappling with the emotional fallout of the pandemic. At some helpline centers, demand has nearly doubled with the flood of people who want to talk about lost jobs, loneliness, and general anxiety about the state of the world during this time. This has left helpline volunteers overwhelmed and unable to meet the urgent demand for comfort.

There are a number of different ways that you can help. If talking on the phone isn't your thing, you can volunteer for Crisis Text Line, an organization that trains you to be a crisis counsellor and teaches you how to respond to texts of people who need urgent help. You can also volunteer for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Help deliver meals to vulnerable populations

Going to the grocery store can be life-threatening to the elderly and people who are immunocompromised. As a result, many vulnerable people are struggling to feed themselves during this pandemic.

Meals on Wheels, the organization that provides meal delivery services to the elderly, has been increasingly strapped for resources during this period, as requests for meals have skyrocketed. You can volunteer to be a Meals on Wheels driver here, keeping in mind that they have implemented new protocol to ensure the safety of both their volunteers and the people they serve. The Salvation Army also runs a similar program, delivering meals to people in need.

Run errands for immunocompromised neighbors

You don't have to be affiliated with an organization to help your community. Running errands for elderly or vulnerable neighbors is one of the best ways to make a difference. Many people who cannot leave their homes are not just in need of food -- they may also need toiletries, a prescription picked up, or a package delivered to the post office.

Facebook user Becky Wass created a helpful template that has been praised for simplifying the process of reaching out. You can fill out this "postcard" and deliver it to your neighbors to let them know that you are here to help. The template has space for you to put your name, phone number, and address -- and lets your neighbors know what you can help with and how to contact you.

Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email and tell us your story.