Hundreds of volunteers offer help during COVID-19 crisis

Published on April 23, 2020 in


National Volunteer Week looks a bit different this year, but United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s dedicated volunteers continue to make a difference for those who need it most. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered life for all of us. Planned volunteer projects to celebrate National Volunteer Week on April 19-25 were canceled. But it’s still a great time to recognize and celebrate volunteers, especially those who are helping the most vulnerable among us during this pandemic.  Through our volunteer portal, volunteers are making sure those in need have food and a place to turn when times get tough. Volunteers have also tutored children and provided educational supports for those who are out of school.  Since mid-March, 820 volunteers have participated in one of 37 different opportunities with 19 different agencies. 

We know it’s a difficult time for our region, the country and the world. The bad news seems constant. But we’ve been touched by the generosity of countless members of the community. That’s why we know that together, we’ll get through this.

JD Lesada, corporate relations associate at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, is one of several volunteers answering 2-1-1 calls to help those who are struggling find the help they need.

Providing help in a tumultuous time

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, nearly half of households in Southeastern Michigan struggled to meet their basic needs. Over the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands of Michiganders have filed for unemployment. We know the need is greater now. When people have nowhere else to turn, our 2-1-1 helpline is there, but with the ongoing crisis, there’s been a surge in demand. In March, our 2-1-1 team took more than 750 calls for help every day. 

That’s where volunteers like JD Lesada come in. 

JD is a corporate relations associate at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. In recent weeks, he’s also been a 2-1-1 volunteer. He takes calls from those in need and connecting them with needed resources, as well as information about food, testing sites, stimulus checks and more. 

“As the crisis developed throughout March, I felt a growing desire to help the community,” JD said. 

“I had no idea where to start since the first rule of the pandemic is to keep your distance. How could I effectively help people if I can’t be near them? The volunteer opportunity with United Way 2-1-1 was the perfect solution  I could help connect people with needed resources and timely information in a safe, ethical and personal way. 

One phone call in particular stands out. 

“I received a call from a woman who was having some trouble expressing her needs in English,” he said. 

“I could tell based on her accent that she was Filipina, and I asked if it would be helpful for her if I continued in Tagalog. With a sigh of relief, she gratefully accepted, and I was able to give her some helpful information regarding meal delivery and food pantries in the language she could understand best.” 

This remote volunteer opportunity is made possible with the help of Slalom Consulting, which helped launch a Slack page for 2-1-1. This allows our Volunteer Engagement Team to connect with 2-1-1 volunteers and answer their questions in real time. It increases effectiveness by minimizing emails and helps volunteers quickly receive the support they need.  

Volunteers are able to see all questions that are asked, so they can learn as questions are answered. The channel also allows volunteers to access all training materials and documents that they need. 

JD has jumped in with both feet, helping coach other 2-1-1 volunteers and continuing to add capacity to our call center. 

“Being able to help people get what they need has been really fulfilling in this uncertain, tumultuous time,” he said.

“When it seems like all we’re receiving is an endless stream of bad news, I’m proud to work for and volunteer with an organization that offers some good news to families who need it most. Even in the midst of this emergency, at the end of the day, I find joy in being able to tell people that help is on the way.” 

In this together 

A total of 54 volunteers have been recruited to help with 2-1-1 calls — 22 United Way staff members and 32 people from our corporate partners, including Comerica, DTE, GM, Henry Ford, Hollingsworth, IHS Markit and Quicken Loans. Training for external volunteers began this week. 

“We really are all in this together,” said Jamie Sedlacek, director of operations at Quicken Loans. 

“At the end of the day, we’re here to support our home cities. It’s the only way our organization can truly be successful. This is tied to our belief that when we do well, we have a responsibility to invest in the community.” 

Jamie said the decision to partner with United Way was a simple one. 

“United Way has their finger on the pulse of what our nonprofit community and vulnerable populations need during this time,” Jamie said. 

“They’ve proven that they’re passionate by acting with a sense of urgency during this crisis, and we’re proud to have come together with other funding partners to support United Way’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund. 

Since launching in mid-March, the COVID-19 Community Response Fund has raised more than $10 million. Every dollar raised goes toward helping those struggling during the pandemic. Quicken donated $500,000 to the fund. Now, the company’s staff members continue to make a difference, using their skills to answer calls from those desperate for help and connecting them with needed resources. 

“2-1-1 is a critical lifeline to vulnerable residents in need of emergency resources,” Jamie said. 

During a crisis, infrastructure like this is even more important, and our team members are proud to be able to use their client service skills to remotely support Detroiters by connecting them to critical resources across the city. One of our core values as a family of companies is being obsessed with finding a better way to impact our community, and during times of adversity, it is even more important that we step up in new ways to engage our team members, deploy flexible dollars and forge new partnerships.” 

Steve Cruise, shown here volunteering prior to the pandemic, has kept himself busy, volunteering with Focus: HOPE, signing up to volunteer with 2-1-1 and donating blood to the Red Cross.

‘I’m doing something positive’ 

Our philanthropic groups also help support 2-1-1. Alumni United member Steve Cruise recently signed up and began the 2-1-1 volunteer process. It’s just the latest in a long line of volunteer projects he’s taking part in to help during this crisis. 

“I would encourage people to come out to engage in volunteer activities for whatever spare time they have, whether it’s a couple hours or a couple of days (a week),” he said. 

“There are lots of opportunities out there and most of them are very safe. You can be one or two steps removed from the general population, and remote working for 2-1-1 is even a further example of that. I just encourage people to do something.” 

Steve has volunteered three times a week for each of the past few weeks at Focus: HOPE, packing food for families in need. Somewhere between 15 to 20 volunteers have turned out to help there. Volunteers wear masks and gloves, maintain their distance from each other and have their temperature taken. 

But that’s not all. Steve has also given blood through the Red Cross and has signed up to assist with contact tracing with the state, helping officials get a better handle on the virus. 

“I’m healthy, I’m able to do it and I have the time,” Steve said. “It feels like I’m doing something positive, so it’s been very good for me as well. It you just sit around and listen to the news and read the articles online, it will drive you crazy. It’s better to be engaged.