Long before most folks in the U.S. were on a first-name basis with COVID-19, Florida mindfulness and meditation instructor Shelly Tygielski noticed that friends and followers on her social media accounts were hurting — losing or fearful of losing jobs and income due to the disease’s ever increasing repercussions. In response, she created a website with a simple mission: to connect people in need to people with the means to help.
On March 14, she announced the launch of Pandemic of Love on her Instagram account, went to bed and woke up the next morning with 400 requests for assistance. Simultaneously, however, her followers were sharing the link to the new initiative, and one of them, the actress Debra Messing, cast a wide net. The Emmy-winning star of “Will & Grace” proved to be the entry point for Asheville resident Suzi Israel.
“My son lives in California and was in a terrible housing situation due to COVID and needed to get out,” Israel explains. “I didn’t have the funds to help him so I went online to see if there was some kind of aid in California and came across Pandemic of Love on Debra Messing’s social media. I went onto the website and was blown away by what they do.”
The process is simple. People in need fill out a form, providing basic contact information and spelling out what they need assistance with: grocery purchases, gas for their car, utility bills or other expenses. Potential donors do the same, supplying general information about how they feel they can help. Israel requested assistance with her son’s housing costs, was swiftly matched with a donor and then took what she saw as the natural next step.
“I noticed there was not an Asheville chapter, so I emailed the organization and let them know I’d be interested in helping start one,” she explains. Because she has Stage 4 lymphoma, Israel cannot risk in-person contact and does not have discretionary funds to donate. She was referred to Lara Hollaway, who had already gotten the wheels turning in Asheville. “I told her that as long as I could do everything on the internet, I would do whatever I could to help.”
The personal touch
In Israel’s case, “whatever” has turned out to mean serving as volunteer leader for the Asheville chapter, connecting recipients and patrons and working with a team of volunteers. They include outreach leader Ness Nowik, a furloughed employee of a Biltmore Estate restaurant who knew Hollaway through their work together at Asheville Community Theatre. “Volunteering has been a part of my life since high school,” Nowik reveals. “In mid-March I was unemployed and trapped in my house, so when Lara asked if I would help with media and social media, I was really excited to help get the word out to people who need help, but especially people who can give help. I think if you give people the opportunity to help, they grab it.”
That was the case with Regina Bennett. Laid off from her job but financially stable, she wanted to support people who were suffering economic hardship in ways that would not involve in-person contact. “Pandemic of Love popped up on Facebook, so I checked it out,” she explains. “I liked the fact that because of the personal connection, you knew where your funds were going, to whom and for what.”
Israel connected Bennett to Ashley Beddingfield, a single mother of three who had to leave her job at a financial institution to help her kids deal with remote learning. The part-time night job she was able to find meant a significant cut in income, and she quickly fell behind on bills.
“I found Pandemic through a friend,” says Beddingfield. “I went to the site, and it was so easy to fill out, it almost felt like a scam, but within three days I heard from Suzi, who put me in touch with Regina.” Bennett sent her a check to cover a car payment, and Israel found someone else to reinstate lapsed auto insurance. “It was so simple, but it meant so much,” says Beddingfield.
Helping total strangers
Another connection facilitated by Israel has meant everything to Kevin Polk, a single father with an 11-year-old daughter. Polk had been working full time at O’Charley’s and part time at Carrabba’s until March 17, when Gov. Roy Cooper ordered restaurants in the state to close. Polk eventually resumed working but with significantly reduced hours. Israel put him in touch with Asheville resident Katie Alexander, who works remotely for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.
“When I first checked out the program, I didn’t think it was for real, that someone would help a total stranger,” Polk recalls. “When I heard from Katie, I was amazed. If it wasn’t for the program and Katie, my daughter and I would probably be homeless now.”
Alexander, who’s committed to assisting Polk through the end of the year — and beyond, if need be and she is able — says that what drew her to Pandemic of Love was the fact that she could provide help directly to an actual, identifiable human being. “What I love about this is the human, one-on-one connection. We haven’t met in person, but I have gotten to know Kevin over the phone, and he is so kind, hard-working and devoted to his daughter. I can’t wait to meet them when we are able.”
Polk says he’s ready. “We have a real friendship, and as soon as it’s safe, I want her to come to dinner on me. She lets me know that God and good exist.”
In each of the nonprofit’s more than 100 “microcommunities” in the U.S. and beyond, volunteers connect local donors with residents in need. Once contact has been made, it’s up to the donor and recipient to work out the details. As of Sept. 16, Pandemic of Love had made over 301,000 matches worldwide and facilitated more than $39.4 million in direct payments to people in need, according to the organization’s website. Closer to home, notes Israel, the Asheville community has already been responsible for over 250 matches and $60,000 in direct aid.