Mar. 11—A year ago Saturday — March 13, 2020 — Alex Bromberg heard the news that COVID-19 had been upgraded: The world was officially in a pandemic.
Rather than panic like many people did by running to the grocery store and buying up all the toilet paper, Bromberg, 36, of Andover, thought: "We will need a place to trade goods and make sure everybody has what they need."
He put up a page on Facebook, giving it the clumsy name of North Andover/Andover COVID Preparedness Site. Within hours, people began reaching out for help and to help, he said.
Little did he know at the time his fledgling idea would evolve into a multi-pronged, volunteer-driven effort he estimates has helped 100,000 people in myriad ways from dropping off hand sanitizer to offering a shoulder to cry on.
"I started the original group with no expectations of how it would grow," he said during a recent meeting with the initial contributors to the organization, known as the "original four."
Jennifer Pulsifer and Melissa Marrama, both of Andover, Darcie Nuttall of North Andover and Carmen Frias-Interrante of Methuen were some of the earliest Facebook followers, but certainly not the last, as the site has more than 5,000 followers.
Frias-Interrante, an electrical engineer, said she remembers getting involved when her niece, a nurse at Lawrence General Hospital, told her she needed masks for people on her hospital floor.
"I went online and said, 'Who has masks?'" she said, noting that LGH was in dire need of personal protective equipment, known as PPE. "Someone on the page messaged me. They said, 'We have 30 masks. I'm going to send them to the hospital right now.'"
They dropped the masks off at the hospital and Frias-Interrante was hooked, realizing the power of the organization and how it could immediately respond to needs in the community.
Darcie Nuttall, who works as a mental health counselor, said she joined the site because she wanted to know what was going on, but soon found there was an endless need for hand sanitizer, masks and more.
She went on the Facebook page touting "Darcie's Porch," where she would leave out bags filled with sanitizer and face masks. Volunteers would come by, pick them up, and deliver them to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the like.
One of the more popular items delivered to the porch was adult diapers, which were then delivered to nursing homes and anyone else in need.
"People would just drop them off," she said, adding that another popular item was Ensure, a protein shake that ended up in bags of food for the homeless.
Marrama, a financial planner who is married to a man from Pakistan, used her connections with the Andover Islamic Center — founded by her and her husband — to create an army of mask-makers.
She estimates volunteers at the center made 70,000 masks which were delivered to health care workers and others throughout the region.
One of their specialty products was a special needs mask, which has a clear window for the mouth so that hearing-impaired people could the read lips of the wearer. Those masks were delivered to special needs teachers as well as the Beverly School for the Deaf.
Pulsifer, a project manager for a pharmaceutical company in Cambridge, said her contribution was baked goods.
"Melissa said they were going to do meals for the homeless," Pulsifer recalled.
Before long her Powers Road kitchen became a home-based bakery. Batch after batch flew out the door, destined for homeless people in Lawrence and elsewhere.
The baked goods are combined with whole fruit, Ensure, snack packs, and more. Some 250 lunch bags — many of them decorated by students at the Sargent School in North Andover — are filled twice a week, delivered to a central location and then distributed to homeless people on the street.
To date, the group estimates they have delivered more than 5,000 bags of food to the homeless.
But there's much, much more.
Twice a month they cook hot meals for the Daybreak Shelter in Lawrence, including the ever-popular "taco night."
They make hot meals a couple of times a week for the workers at testing sites around the Merrimack Valley, delivering them on cold days to workers who spend hours a day outside or in cold tents testing local residents for COVID-19.
Pulsifer compiles bags of food for homebound mental health patients.
Marrama has three, 6-foot tall inflatable birthday cakes which she will deliver, upon request, to anyone's front yard in the area who is having a virtual, or quarantine birthday party. So far, she has inflated the enormous baked good 800 times.
The list goes on and on, and continues to grow, Bromberg said, but as the need for masks and hand sanitizer diminishes, the focus of the group is evolving.
"I posted something in May or June saying, 'Now that things are changing, our focus is also changing,'" he recalled, noting that the group was going to "rebrand and spread kindness in all sorts of other ways. We were still going to do masks and help hospitals, but there are all sorts of different ways to help people. It was a need at a time as it came up."
Sometimes, he said, people just need to be heard.
"I gave masks and caps to a COVID nurse, and she broke down crying," he recalls. "She started balling her eyes out. She said she had to hold the iPad so family members could see their loved ones for the last time. She was so apologetic. I said, 'There's no need to apologize.' I always want to make sure we are connecting with people at a human level."
Going forward, Bromberg said he is seeking 501c3 nonprofit status, a legal process that should be completed by the end of the month. That will enable the group to raise money and continue to expand its services.
He said already he has established partnerships with towns such as North Andover and Methuen. He has been in contact with Merrimack College which has a strong tradition of public service projects.
Many of the activities the group is involved in now aren't even COVID-19 related, he said, showing the need for an organization like the Kindness Collaborative.
"It will be definitely be needed going forward," he said.