Amid virus, volunteers pitch in

March 27, 2020 12:01 am

Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on Thursday, freeing up state funds and resources to respond to COVID-19. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Feelings of helplessness have enveloped Priscilla Stephens throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. The new coronavirus is ravaging nations around the globe and communities across America. 

But how could she fight back?

Stephens decided to become one of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of Virginians who have stepped up recently by volunteering across the commonwealth. The retired teacher from Virginia Beach answered the call from Volunteer Hampton Roads, a regional organization that connects agencies with people willing to assist.

“Obviously, this is unprecedented,” said Stephens, who this week helped plate hundreds of meals of chicken, sweet potatoes, green beans and other fixings for distribution through Portsmouth-based Mercy Chefs

The culinary nonprofit usually prepares scrumptious fare for people around the country and internationally who are the victims of natural disasters. But it also assists in Virginia when crises strike close to home. 

Stephens said it was the first time she had worked through Volunteer Hampton Roads, which has sent out urgent email requests for new volunteers this month. 

The reason for the alerts? The needs were great, but most of the regular volunteers are retired – and among the high-risk population affected by COVID-19, said Stephanie Gorham, the group’s executive director.

“The younger crowd has really stepped up,” Gorham told me. Over a recent nine-day stretch, volunteers had filled more than 450 slots that included drivers for Meals on Wheels and kitchen prep crews. 

She said Volunteer Hampton Roads seeks healthy people for the chores, and it follows guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (For more information or to sign up, go to

Statewide, Gov. Ralph Northam this week asked health care professionals to volunteer during the coronavirus pandemic by serving in the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps. The Virginian-Pilot reported that more than 8,000 people are ready to deploy. Northam’s spokeswoman told me by email that the state has approved 1,551 new volunteers statewide since Feb. 27. People interested in volunteering for the COVID-19 public health response should apply at

All of this represents a determination by Virginians to get off the sidelines and fight an invisible foe that’s killing people – more than 1,000 just in the United States by Thursday. It’s forced us to alter the way we interact with each other – usually by staying in the house. The crisis has shut down schools and businesses, threatened the U.S. economy, and jeopardized the safety of doctors, nurses and other health-care workers. 

Volunteerism, then, empowers us to punch back during this ongoing pandemic, instead of just sitting back and waiting for the next fear-inducing development.

Stephens, 65, said the severity of the crisis convinced her to help. She was checked with a thermometer to make sure she didn’t have a fever – one of the symptoms of the virus – and then got to work. 

People are donating their time and service elsewhere in the state, of course. The Washington Post reported volunteer coordinators at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville asked last week for handmade surgical caps and masks to bolster supplies. Responses came in from around the state. Other regions, such as Fairfax, have also coordinated volunteer responses.

The efforts are needed. They also show we’ll attack this viral monster any way we can.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]