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An SVA volunteer shops for groceries for someone in need. Photo: Supplied
An SVA volunteer shops for groceries for someone in need. Photo: Supplied

The BulletinMay 1, 2020

How an army of students is helping to feed vulnerable New Zealanders

An SVA volunteer shops for groceries for someone in need. Photo: Supplied
An SVA volunteer shops for groceries for someone in need. Photo: Supplied

Delivery services for supermarkets across the country are filling up weeks in advance, leaving immunocompromised people without options. Students up and down the country have been stepping up, through the Student Volunteer Army, to help those in need.

If anyone had said at this point last year that a smile from a stranger passing on the street could mean so much, nobody would have believed it. The current conditions we’re all living under have emphasised the importance of community, with a wave through a window taking on a much larger meaning than before. But for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, the opportunity for interaction, however small, has been significantly reduced as they try to keep themselves safe from Covid-19.

The Student Volunteer Army (SVA) has been delivering groceries to those most in need around the country since the beginning of the lockdown, providing food and other essentials to vulnerable people, but also giving a sense of purpose and community to both the volunteers and those on the other end of the delivery. One of the volunteers, Amal Abdullahi, say the drop-offs usually only take a couple of minutes, but it’s worth it just for the smile and wave from the other side of the door. “To have that sense of normalcy and have that community and connection there, that brightens up my day,” she says.

The switch from alert level four to alert level three has changed the daily lives of a lot of New Zealanders, from those who work in teaching to hospitality and retail. But the change in alert levels hasn’t meant much for the thousands of elderly and medically vulnerable whose access to essential services is still greatly limited.

With online shopping slots filling instantly, sometimes weeks in advance, and priority shoppers lists already overflowing, the SVA has begun a priority delivery service. Currently there are around 2,500 volunteers from Auckland to Dunedin, who fill out hundreds of orders every week. Unlike some major supermarkets, the SVA has capacity to take on far more orders than they’re currently receiving.

The SVA has partnered with various businesses to ensure the operation is as efficient and low-cost as possible. One of them, Z Energy, has adapted its Sharetank app to provide free fuel to the volunteer drivers.

While most deliveries at the moment span only a few kilometres, they can be a lot longer, and Sam Johnson, chief executive and co-founder of the SVA, says the free fuel initiative has helped volunteers save their own money. 

“The main thing we do is grocery, and we’re seeing a 20% rise in order numbers each day. But we’ve got way more volunteers than we have orders, so what Z has helped us do is be able to deliver anywhere in the country.”

Sharetank is a contactless way to distribute fuel to volunteer drivers, with funds controlled and monitored by the SVA and Z Energy. The fuel is paid for by Z Energy in advance and transferred to the Sharetank app where the SVA can access it.

Learning to accept help when it’s offered was a big lesson SVA learned from its response to Covid-19, and Johnson says it’s a large part of the process we’re all going through right now as we adjust our lives to fight Covid-19. That doesn’t just mean for the people who need assistance, but the volunteers as well.

“We have accepted the help of some very smart people and amazing companies that have helped us do this… more people want to help than people accept help, so what we want to do is encourage people to accept help more,” says Johnson. 

“Giving people something to do that helps someone else is a hugely meaningful and valuable part of society.”

Volunteering has helped Abdullahi stay connected with her community in Dunedin, and she’s been surprised by the wonderful reactions she’s had from those to whom she’s delivered. 

“Last time I did a grocery shop, I was saying my goodbye to the person on the other side of the door and their really cute dog, and I noticed them pointing towards a package in a brown paper bag and it said, ‘To SVA, thank you so much.’ I took the package into the car and this person had crafted a wee heart and had stitched ‘SVA’ onto it and it was the sweetest thing.”

Amal Abdullahi with the handmade SVA heart she was given (Photo: Supplied)

Positively impacting the mental health of SVA volunteers is one of the important side effects of the community work the organisation is doing, especially while we’ve been under the level four and three restrictions. President of the SVA club, Isabella Fanselow, has heard from many volunteers who’ve experienced reciprocal benefit from contributing to their communities.

“There are so many people who want to help, so if we’re able to provide safe opportunities for them to do so, that’s really good for people’s mental health in these crazy times… It gives them the chance to get out of the house for a safe and purposeful reason and they find it really rewarding.”

Helping the SVA with its operation costs was an important opportunity for Z Energy to make a contribution to the Covid-19 fight beyond its own bubble. Sharetank product manager Dana Jacobson says it’s been good to know the company’s work is having a positive impact and helping those who need it most right now.

“My only other contribution at the moment is staying home, so it’s pretty nice to be able to do a small piece to help out people in need. Recognising that the bulk of the work is being done by the SVA but being able to help feels really good.”

Without support from volunteers and large companies, Fanselow says the SVA’s grassroots work wouldn’t reach the amount of people it currently does. They know the impact they’re having on the people they’re looking after is real. 

“They leave little notes saying thank you and often it’s the highlight of their day, seeing a friendly SVA volunteer walk up the driveway and stand two metres away and give them their groceries.”

Whether making a call to a family to check in, donating to an organisation like the SVA or even starting your own Sharetank to help whānau in essential work who are still needing to travel, Abdullahi wants to encourage everyone who can to find ways to help people. At this time it’s a two-way deal. 

“Even though it might not be your grandparents, it’s your community, and if you can be there for them, if you can show up for your community, just do it. You’re just spreading the love and it comes back to you.”

Keep going!