Eliza Kenigsberg of Portland is one of two neighborhood hub leaders for Mainers Together’s West End branch, who reaches out to people in need during the pandemic and connects them with volunteers. Courtesy Eliza Kenigsberg

PORTLAND — Edward Roast, who lives on his own in the West End and has been particularly isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, was elated earlier this month to receive a balloon and card for his 72nd birthday from his Mainers Together community buddy.

The statewide initiative is geared toward helping people at high risk of infection, such as older adults and people with autoimmune illnesses. Two Mainers Together volunteers, Eliza Kenigsberg and Molly Brown, have brought him groceries so that he could avoid venturing out to the store and taken him to medical appointments.

“It’s hard when you live alone to get things,” said Roast, who has trouble walking and has other health issues. The outreach he receives from the volunteers, such as a call twice a week to check in on how he’s doing, gives him “something to look forward to.”

“It’s a blessing,” Roast said. “They’re willing to help whenever I need it.”

Kenigsberg is one of two neighborhood hub leaders for Mainers Together’s West End branch, reaching out to people who’ve submitted requests for help and connecting them with volunteers. She’s worked with 28 volunteers, 12 of whom have one-on-one community buddy relationships with people who have recurring needs. About 50 residents in that part of Portland have been served so far, Kenigsberg said.

Throughout the state, 134 community buddies have been assigned, there have been nearly 700 help requests, more than 400 people in need have been sent gift cards to buy items like groceries and more than 1,000 volunteers have signed up, she reported.

Maine People’s Alliance launched the initiative in March in response to the pandemic, dedicating $25,000 toward the effort for purchases like the gift cards.

Along with wellness checks and going over shopping lists, the connections are meant “also to provide some neighborly love and support, because some of these folks have been alone for the last two months and they’re lonely,” Kenigsberg said. “So the goal is both to get them necessary food items and cleaning products, but also to build a relationship between neighbors that can hopefully be sustained over time. … Really to build a long-lasting community network.”

People have been struggling before and during the pandemic “and we know that the economic fallout’s going to lead to them struggling after,” so maintaining those relationships after the pandemic has ended will be important, Kenigsberg said.

A community and career coordinator for the Gorham school district who lives between the West End and Parkside neighborhoods, Kenigsberg gets a warm feeling from being able to help people, but also laments the fact that so many people in her community aren’t getting the support they need.

“I feel more sad and concerned, and also sort of activated to do more of this work,” she said.

“It feels to me like in many cases, I’m the first person that’s called them to just ask them, ‘how are you?’,” Kenigsberg said. “People have cried on the phone, people have enthusiastically thanked us many, many times. It seems like there’s a pressure valve that’s been released when we call.”

Those connections are mutually beneficial for volunteer and resident alike, she explained: “People really want to do something to help during this time and I think there weren’t very many outlets to do that. And it’s been amazing to see how good volunteers feel to be able to do something for somebody. That gives me a lot of hope.”

More information on Mainers Together, such as how to submit help requests, can be found at mainerstogether.com and facebook.com/mainerstogether. People in crisis or feeling overwhelmed can call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112. They can also call the Maine Warm Line at 866-771-9276 to talk through grief, anxiety or sadness.

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