April 22, 2020

Graduation Canceled, College Students Create “Give Essential” To Help Frontline Workers

By Donald Gilpin

College seniors preparing for graduation and the next chapter in their lives have suffered the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The class of 2020 may be still working to complete online course requirements for a graduation that will take place virtually, if at all. There is no opportunity for the spring rituals and celebrations of senior year, no lingering farewells, no class day or baccalaureate, no caps and gowns and pomp and circumstance.

Amy Guan, spent little time lamenting her lost spring term at Dartmouth College, where she was completing her fourth year as an economics major with a minor in Asian Studies.

A 2016 Princeton High School (PHS) graduate, Guan was ready to begin the last term of her senior year at Dartmouth when she came home to Princeton on March 10 for what was supposed to be spring break.

“I spent a lot of time at home reading the news,” said Guan in a phone interview this week. “My college roommate and I read a lot about essential workers and the dangers they faced every day in order to keep the rest of society running.”

They read stories about those workers and their lack of protective equipment, their financial problems, and their needs for many different resources. “We realized that a lot of their biggest needs were for things that a lot of us might just have lying around,” Guan added.

The two young women had just taken a course together on social entrepreneurship, and, as they discussed how to connect essential workers with would-be donors, they devised an online matching platform and called it Give Essential.

“Toys to occupy kids while their parents are at work, hygiene products, soap, shampoo — we asked each other ‘why not find a way to connect these resources to people who need them?’” said Guan. “Originally we thought we would send gift packages ourselves to the essential workers. We would create these packages then send them off to people who need them. But we wanted to find a way to more efficiently connect these resources with the workers who need them.”

Within 72 hours they had built and launched the Give Essential website, with a link on Facebook to help spread the word. “We came up with this idea of having a website with a form where essential workers can sign up and tell us what they need,” said Guan.

Applicants provide basic contact information and proof of employment, and they specify desired resources in one or more of five different categories: protective equipment like gloves and masks, personal care and hygiene products, feminine products, children’s activities, and gift cards. Donors fill out a similar form and designate which resources they want to donate. They can also give through Give Essential’s GoFundMe if they’d rather give cash. The funds will be used to buy necessities or gift cards for essential workers who have not been matched up with other donors.

“The reception has been incredible,” said Guan. In a little over a week so far, they have heard from about 1,400 essential workers from all across the country. They have found donors to match with more than half of those workers, and they have sent out their first batch of matching resources. Many donors have indicated that they want to be matched with more than one essential worker, and some have even signed up to be matched with up to 20. Give Essential’s goal, Guan said, is to meet all valid requests.

Crystal An, a former PHS classmate of Guan and a 2019 graduate of Case Western Reserve University, saw the April 10 Facebook post about Give Essential, signed on, and has been helping to lead the effort over the past 10 days. “I got in touch with Amy with the intention of helping anyone I could,” said An, who had recently flown home from Vietnam where she had been working for a nonprofit until her job had ended with the escalation of the pandemic.

“I had a strong desire to help,” An continued. “I have friends who are nurses fighting on the front lines and med school friends who are helping with contact tracing and a COVID hotline. But without any medical training I felt at a loss for how to make a positive impact.”

An, a cognitive science major on a pre-med track, described the unique appeal of Give Essential in the current pandemic. “There are so many people out there who want to help others but don’t know how they can, and that’s the beauty and utility of Give Essential. It empowers regular people who are stuck at home now to make a direct impact on an essential worker’s life. Especially in this time of isolation to be able to make that connection and to build that sense of community is such a powerful experience.”

Guan described one essential worker who is a retail employee with two small children and a husband who works nights at a department store. She didn’t have time to take care of her children and was having trouble paying her bills.

Applicants are given the option of sharing their stories on the Give Essential form, and another employee from California wrote that she lost her job a few weeks ago and wasn’t able to pay her rent. She was living out of her car and her unemployment benefits had been delayed. She was using water bottles to shower.

Other essential workers who contacted Give Essential included nurses who flew across the country to help at a New York hospital. One nurse had been wearing a mask every day on the job and the skin on her face was peeling. She had no access to bandages and all she asked from Give Essential was for Band-Aids.

“The most impactful part of this project is learning how these people’s lives have been affected,” Guan said, reflecting on the future potential of Give Essential. “This is a unique platform where you are able to connect personally with people who need help. You’re not just donating money to a random website and not seeing what happens with the money. You directly feel the impact of what you’re doing. That’s a very cool dynamic which we’d love to explore and see how we can expand that.”

Give Essential, still in its first weeks of existence, continues to grow and evolve. There are currently about 30 volunteers, and Guan and An are looking to expand their volunteer base as well as their number of essential workers and their pool of donors.
One of their next initiatives is to develop the community-based aspect of Give Essential, to connect donors to the communities where they live.

“I’d love to connect Princeton workers at McCaffrey’s or Whole Earth with Princeton residents who want to help them out,” Guan said. “We’ll be reaching out to these businesses this week.”

An enthusiastically described the diverse group of volunteers who make up Give Essential. “Our team is very dynamic and passionate about this cause,” she said, so we’re constantly finding ways to increase the efficiency and add functionality to the platform. Something that Amy and I love about the team is that we’re all young college-age students, all female, and we’ve been able to provide diverse perspectives and ideas to solve the problems that we’ve faced so far.”

Guan added, “We just want to help as many people as possible. We realize what an impact even a small gift can make. We’re really passionate about this project and excited to see how many people we can help.”

An urged others to participate in Give Essential at their website giveessential.org. “We’re doing everything we can right now to spread the word about this project,” she said. “The more people we can reach, the more people we’ll be able to help.”