Imagine, during this year of isolation, having to spend Thanksgiving alone. Maybe you don't even have enough money to buy a holiday meal.
It's a scenario that Howard Kushlan refuses to accept for his Palo Alto neighbors. So he and nearly 20 volunteers have decided to deliver Thanksgiving dinner and a bit of holiday cheer to the doors of the city's most vulnerable: seniors.
If things work out right, they might even hold a community Thanksgiving get-together on Zoom, he said.
Kushlan recently invited seniors ages 70 and older to contact him if they would like a free meal. Volunteers also poured forth to assist or to provide names of people they know who are in need. That led to plans to deliver about 100 Thanksgiving dinners, and Kushlan expects there could be more requests by next week. The meals are being offered on a first-come, first-served basis until food runs out, he said.
The Thanksgiving deliveries are just a small subset of what Kushlan and other volunteers have been doing to help the most vulnerable since the COVID-19 pandemic started. In April, Kushlan spearheaded a community-based group that's grown to more than 200 volunteers who help those in need with everything from grocery pickups and dog walking to a friendly phone call to check in.
"If COVID has taught me anything about social networks, it's that we're all interconnected," he said by phone this week.
In true community style, catering companies, restaurants and individuals are gathering to prepare the meals, with some offering home cooking. His group has taken donations, and some of the cost is being covered out of pocket. One person even donated Christmas-decorated COVID masks to deliver with the meals, he said.
The need in affluent Palo Alto is eye-opening, he added.
Since posting the free dinner offer on the social-networking site Nextdoor, Kushlan has received dozens of emails from people about the trying circumstances under which many in the community live. The stories gnaw at him. "I'm OK, but my neighbor is 97 years old," wrote one person. Others say they don't have enough money for food or that they've got no family to help them.
"The emails are heartbreaking and devastating," he said.
So the volunteers seek to deliver dignity along with turkey legs and thighs, to make the holiday meals "as seamless as possible" for the recipients, he said. They plan to deliver the dinners at the recipient's preferred time.
But food alone is not enough for human sustenance. Kushlan also wants to create companionship on the holiday. He's planning a big Zoom Thanksgiving gathering next week, if he can find a way to do it.
COVID-19 has taken so many basic human connections away, he said.
"I refuse to live in a world where I bring a meal and leave someone to eat it alone, staring at their walls," he said.
Even if no one joins in the Zoom event and he ends up eating alone on the call, he'll still be there, he said.
Kushlan said he assumes his group will do something similar for Christmas. But beyond the holidays, he's hopeful that out of the tragedy of COVID-19 people will build a new web of connections.
"Maybe it becomes an initiative that connects younger families with older people," he said. "I hope Palo Altans continue engaging with people year round. Nothing feels better than this — nothing."
Kushlan said his thinking and action is encapsulated in a quote he once heard: "The gap between your professed values and what you actually do is where justice goes to die," he said.
"Capitalizing on the community's sense of urgency is how we're going to drive change."
Anyone who wants to have a meal delivered, or who wants to donate or volunteer, can contact Howard Kushlan at [email protected] or by text at 415-971-6581.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.