Neighbors Helping Neighbors helps Utahns volunteer to help those who need assistance during the pandemic

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hoang Ha selects groceries for a requestor May 20, 2020. Ha created Neighbors Helping Neighbors, connecting volunteers to people who need food, prescriptions, supplies and books delivered during COVID-19. From March, when he began the delivery service, to May, he's made more than 900 connections.

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Jolene Clarke wasn’t sure how she was going to pick up her prescriptions during the coronavirus pandemic. Because of her respiratory disease, Clarke’s doctor recommended she hunker down at her Marmalade home until July.

Then, Clarke heard about Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a volunteer-based program that originated out of Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood in mid-March. Clarke just had to enter her name, contact information and what she wanted delivered on the organization’s website, and she’d be connected with someone who’d promptly bring it to her.

The first time Clarke received her prescription through Neighbors Helping Neighbors, from a man who biked from a Smith’s pharmacy to bring Clarke the medicine she needed, she closed her door and thought, “There is hope for the human race.”

“I had been feeling so down, and I had already been confined so much to home,” the 60-year-old said. Knowing someone selflessly took time out of his day to help her, “it just warmed my heart,” she said.

The phone number listed at the bottom of the Neighbors Helping Neighbors website connects callers with Hoang Ha, who started the project and still single-handedly runs it more than two months later. When Utah’s social distancing guidelines went into place in March, Ha saw friends on social media wanting to help others but feeling helpless about how to do so. At the same time, he noticed neighbors who were elderly or immunocompromised and needed help getting groceries and running errands.

"The two groups were kind of missing each other,” Ha said.

Ha, a 48-year-old software engineer, did what he knows best. He created a website that connected volunteers with people who needed assistance. From March to late May, “we have completed over 900 requests,” he said.

“It started out really locally, like in the neighborhood,” Ha said. “...Then it sort of just ballooned up, and it started to grow citywide. And then it started to grow statewide. ... In less than a month, I had mobilized over a thousand volunteers from St. George all the way to Logan.”

With his computer programming background, Ha has used algorithms to match volunteers who sign up through the website with requesters in their area. Still, he’s the one who makes sure everything runs smoothly. And this is a side gig — he still has his daily job to do.

On Wednesday, Ha, wearing a mask and gloves, went to the Smith’s grocery store on 6th Avenue to get bananas, bread and other food for a person who made a request through the website. He made another stop to deliver books to another requester.

A couple of weeks ago, Neighbors Helping Neighbors teamed up with the Salt Lake City Library to bring donated books to people who may not have access to the internet or e-readers.

Lisa Sewell, 58, recently volunteered and delivered a couple of books about landscaping and gardening to a fellow Salt Lake City resident.

Sewell said she appreciates that Neighbors Helpings Neighbors lets people like her complete a doable task to make a difference in her community. “It’s just straight up, ‘You need a helping hand? I’m around the corner. I can run and get some milk for you,'" she said.

Camille Winnie, 52, brought face masks and prescriptions to a neighbor through the project. He has Winnie’s phone number now and can call whenever he needs anything. Winnie said she decided to volunteer after thinking about the people who live around her elderly parents and watch out for them.

“It just seemed like a really simple thing to do," Winnie said, “to help out someone who didn’t have that resource.”

Before the lockdown, Harold Carr and his wife, Flavia Cervino-Wood, stocked up on food. But as the stay-at-home directives continued, they didn’t want to risk going to the grocery store since “we’re both in an age group that is a little more dangerous” and not everyone wears masks, Carr said. Having a volunteer deliver their food to their Avenues home has “really, really, really reduced our stress level a great deal,” he said.

Before starting Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Ha had never done anything like this. He said he’s glad he did, though.

“It’s been such a blessing to see all of these people come together,” Ha said. “...I’m very, very actually pleasantly surprised by the generosity of the volunteers in the state of Utah wanting to do this.”

At the same time, it’s heartbreaking to see the job losses and struggles people are experiencing during the spread of the virus, Ha said. One mother asked to have her son’s prescription delivered. The volunteer assigned to run the errand called Ha and explained that the mother couldn’t afford the medicine. So, Ha created a GoFundMe account to help people pay for prescriptions, groceries and other items they requested through the project. The more than $4,000 it’s raised has quickly been used up, though, he said.

Eventually, Ha hopes that Neighbors Helping Neighbors becomes obsolete and “that means everybody’s needs are met.”

“My ultimate goal is to end this,” Ha said. “...Not because it’s laborious or it’s a pain,” but because the pandemic has ended. "And people will go back to normal, whatever normal is."

Until then, he’ll keep running things.