Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in an occasional series called Maine Acts of Kindness, highlighting volunteer and philanthropic efforts during the pandemic.

From left, Deena Raef, a dental student; Fahed Darmoch, a physician at Mid Coast Hospital; Joe Conroy, the senior director of Food Programs and Operations at Preble Street; and Haya Raef, a medical student, unload 100 COVID care kits at Preble Street on Monday. The kits are filled with personal hygiene products for Preble Street’s homeless clients. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

As the coronavirus outbreak spread across the United States, and Maine in particular, Haya Raef looked for a way to help.

While some of her classmates in the Tufts University School of Medicine’s Maine Track program had begun programs to help front-line health care workers, Raef and others looked to assist the homeless.

They began putting together COVID care kits, a package of personal hygiene items such as soap, toothpaste and tooth brushes, hand sanitizers and face cleansers for homeless people in Portland and Boston. So far they’ve donated 600 of the kits, with 400 going to the Boston Health Care for the Homeless program and 200 to Preble Street in Portland.

The items are all donated from companies such as Tom’s of Maine, Mr. Boston Brands of Maine, Fabrizia Spirits, Maine Craft Distilling and local dentists. The group is going to add face masks, donated from a company in California, in its next batch of care kits, which also include pocket puzzle books and ear buds.

“All of us are a little frustrated that we can’t be on the front lines with our mentors and teachers,” said Raef, a third-year med student who lives in Portland. “We want to do the best we can to contribute in a safe way … So we’re making sure we can make a small difference in any way we can.”

Tufts’ Maine Track program is for med school students who intend to pursue a career in Maine. And those that are here want to make a difference in their community.

“I thought this was a pretty important project to get involved with,” said Sarah Bunting, a Scarborough High graduate who just completed her third year with a clinical rotation at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington. “There’s a pretty big socioeconomic divide among people getting COVID. And people experiencing homelessness are most affected by this.”

Raef’s small group of volunteers includes her husband (Fahed Darmoch, a physician at Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick) and sister (Deena Raef, a University of Southern Maine graduate and Tufts Dental School student), along with Bunting and first-year Maine Track med student Olivia Fauver. Hospital officials in Portland and Boston also are lending a hand.

“We wanted to acknowledge our common humanity in this crisis and reach out to our neighbors who are not as fortunate as we are,” Haya Raef said.

Joe Conroy, the senior director of Food Programs and Operations at Preble Street, looks at one of the COVID care kits donated by Haya Raef and her partners on Monday. The care kits will benefit the center’s homeless population. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Care kits were delivered to Preble Street on Monday.

“We’ve worked with Maine Track students before,” said Mark Swann, the executive director at Preble Street. “And we’ve had a great experience with them. So it’s not surprising they’re thinking about us and digging deep to help us. People who are experiencing homelessness are extremely vulnerable to public health risks like COVID-19. Many are already immune-compromised or dealing with multiple health issues.

“Gifts like these COVID kits help us meet the need and keep people safe. And the focus now is to make sure people are safe and sound.”

When Raef, 25, first began to consider the care kits, she reached out to her mentor, Dr. Jennifer Tan, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless program. “We worked together to identify the items that would be most helpful,” Raef said.

Raef sent emails to companies that are supplying the products needed for the care kits. Tom’s of Maine donated over 1,000 bars of soap, 500 mouth washes and many more oral hygiene products. Mr. Boston Brands of Maine donated over 500 hand sanitizers. Fabrizia Spirits, located in Salem, New Hampshire, donated 50 large hand sanitizers.

“It’s amazing how they responded,” said Tan. “We had some contacts through our work here but we’ve had the incredible spirits of local donors too.”

Phil Mastroianni, a co-owner of Fabrizia Spirits, said it was an easy decision to make a donation once he knew who the hand sanitizers were for. “There are people in need, that’s why it made sense for us to do that for them,” he said. “That’s why we want to support them.”

Matt Mayer of Tom’s of Maine, which has donated nearly $500,000 worth of natural personal hygiene products in the fight against coronavirus, said, “We are very proud of the work being done by the Tufts Medical School students in regard to providing products to our local communities.”

The care kits are packed by the volunteers at their homes – “Social distancing,” said Bunting – and then delivered to the shelters.

“We actually just assembled several hundred kits,” said Bunting, who hopes to work in emergency medicine. “This ended up being a really great project, much more than we anticipated.”

Are there folks in your community going out of their way to help others during the virus outbreak? If so, please send details about their efforts to [email protected]

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