It took VOCA founder Brian Jaffe just three days to turn his civic engagement platform into a way to help medically vulnerable people get groceries while sheltering in place.
The Redwood City-based techie founded VOCA back in 2017 to get residents more involved with local government.
The texting service sends questions on state and local issues to subscribers and then shares their responses with elected officials. But when the nine-county Bay Area enacted its first shelter-in-place order back in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Jaffe saw an opportunity to help.
“It became clear that this is going to be a life-altering global and national event and nobody is going to care for some period of time the types of questions we were asking before,” Jaffe said of his app. “It just ... needed to take a back seat to the crisis at hand.”
That’s when he came up with the idea for COVID Assist.
Using the technology that helps power VOCA, Jaffe created a platform to help volunteers across the country connect with seniors and other medically vulnerable individuals who need assistance with picking up groceries, medications and other essential items.
Since the launch, COVID Assist has signed up more than 1,300 volunteers nationwide and is working to organize a virtual summit for mutual aid organizers across the U.S.
“I’ve just been really inspired by how willing people are in the community and honestly across the country because we have people now who are joining our team from all different states,” Jaffe’s co-founder Nora Grossman said.
But despite the strong show of volunteer support, COVID Assist has struggled with reaching those who need help the most.
“There are a lot of inspiring stories out there of community building and I think we’re part of that,” Jaffe said. “Can we build a kinder more resilient, more human way of interacting with each other even through the internet? My hope is that we can and I would love for COVID Assist to be apart of that.”
With COVID Assist’s Bay Area roots, the company has garnered a strong show of local volunteers, including former San Jose City Council candidate Marshall Woodmansee. After his unsuccessful bid for the District 6 seat this past spring, the 19-year-old heard Jaffe being interviewed on the radio and decided to reach out.
“I wanted to be involved with COVID Assist because my life has always been centered around helping others,” Woodmansee said. “It’s really come to fruition now that I’m an adult. I see all the stuff going on around us and it pushes me to do something and I’m in a position of privilege where I have the time and energy to help others.”
While Woodmansee currently serves as the company’s social media manager, he’s also volunteered to go out and make deliveries himself—and all while on his electric bicycle since he doesn’t have a driver’s license.
During his first volunteer run, he delivered diapers to a young mother who was living with her elderly in-laws.
Woodmansee says it took 10 hours total between placing an order for pick-up, biking to two different Targets and finally dropping the items off at her house.
“Here I am biking [and] stressed out,” Woodmansee said about the experience. “You have to think about everyone else [who] is in much greater risk. I can’t imagine stepping foot in a hospital now let alone working there. That empowers me to do these small little things and move past my personal anxiety.”