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People across the country are delivering groceries free. It’s ‘solidarity, not charity.’

David Millis, who co-founded the Denver Delivery Network, delivers groceries free to homebound people in the Denver area. (Robbie Hobein)

Other than tending to her backyard rose garden, 82-year-old Breda Courtney hasn’t been out of her house in Berkeley, Calif., in nearly six weeks, knowing that a trip to the grocery store or pharmacy is a gamble she can’t take.

With a heart condition and an inflammatory disease known as polymyalgia rheumatica, Courtney is among millions of high-risk people trying not to catch the novel coronavirus, so she has been riding out the pandemic alone, apart from talking regularly with her two sons, who live in San Francisco.

In recent weeks, though, she has developed a friendship with a woman she has never met. Kat Cui, 24, lives in the same neighborhood as Courtney and stops by every Saturday to leave several bags of groceries on her front porch as a volunteer with the Berkeley Mutual Aid Network.

“Honest to God, it’s like she came down from heaven just to take care of me and get me through this,” Courtney said.

Cui, a paralegal who works at a nonprofit organization that specializes in elder law, is among thousands of volunteers nationwide who help to keep pantries and refrigerators stocked for those who can’t get out to buy their own groceries. The recipients pay for the groceries, but not for the delivery — and generally, no tips are accepted.

Delivery networks have sprung up from Seattle to Portland, Maine, giving those who are isolated a much-needed boost, and providing relief from the fees, long wait times and out-of-stock notices for those wrangling with the complications of buying groceries online.

Grocery delivery was supposed to be the ultimate pandemic lifeline. But it’s falling short.

“Before Kat, I didn’t know what I was going to do and I was feeling quite depressed,” Courtney said. “I was incredibly grateful when I found out about the Berkeley group online. It’s really helped to lower my stress level.”

The Berkeley Mutual Aid Network was started in mid-March by Gradiva Couzin, 49, and Helen Marks, 32, after California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

“We thought, ‘How can we help flatten the curve and keep people safe?’ ” said Marks, who works as a management consultant and has a newborn son. “We were noticing there was a feeling of helplessness out there among people in our neighborhood.”

Marks and Couzin, who runs her own marketing business, began picking up groceries for their elderly neighbors and the idea grew from there. They now have a network of more than 750 volunteers who are matched to help seniors and people with compromised immune systems who live in or near their neighborhoods.

When somebody needs groceries, they send a list of what they need to the network, then a shopper will buy the items and drop them off, no fee required. (Recipients reimburse the volunteers through Venmo, cash or check.)

“This is about solidarity, not charity,” Couzin said. “None of us is okay unless we’re all okay. None of us is safe unless we’re all safe. We’ve always needed each other, but the truth is, a lot of people probably never would have met or talked to each other without this crisis.”

Nurses and doctors are posting photos of their faces bruised by masks. A boy stepped in to help.

In Denver, David Millis and his wife, Robbie Hobein, have had a similar experience. Since they started the nonprofit organization Denver Delivery Network in response to the pandemic, clients have told them they appreciate hearing another voice almost as much as the milk, bread and produce that is left outside their doors.

“People are hungry for human contact, so we always make sure to talk to them on the phone or chat with them at a distance when we drop off their groceries,” said Millis, 58, who works for a data analytics software company.

“For people who can't get out, you might be the only person they talk to all day,” he said.

Millis and Hobein, a former middle school band and orchestra teacher who now works in the tech industry, decided to start their delivery network after they tried to order groceries for themselves online in early March.

“It was really difficult,” Millis said. “It was a horrific ordeal."

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, my God — if we’re having this trouble, what about our neighbors?’ ” said Hobein, 48. “And what about the people who are susceptible to getting sick?”

Although she and Millis have dozens of volunteers to shop for groceries and deliver them to those in need throughout the Denver area, they still enjoy going on food runs themselves, loading everything from dog treats, water filters, Oreos and spaghetti sauce into the small trailer attached to their cargo bicycle.

“Before Easter, a woman contacted us and said, ‘I want to make myself a tasty Easter meal,’ ” Hobein said. “She wanted a slice of ham, some fixings for potato salad and a box of Russell Stover chocolate creams. Like many of the people we help, she was alone. Easter was hard for all of us this year, so it was nice to make this happen for her.”

As with other free delivery services, volunteers with the Denver Delivery Network stay at least six feet away from their clients when making drop-offs and collecting payments.

“Runners never enter the residence, but they stick around to make sure the person comes out to take their groceries inside,” Millis said. “And they’ll usually talk to the person for a bit.”

“Some people might initially feel a little embarrassed about asking somebody to shop for them, but when they realize that people are coming out the woodwork wanting to help, they are genuinely grateful,” he added. “And we feel the same way about having the opportunity to help them.”

Kristin Guerin said she has felt the same gratitude when helping elderly or housebound neighbors through Buddy System Miami, a nonprofit food delivery service she started in March with her friend Jessica Gutierrez.

“We have an army of 500 volunteers, and we’re now all getting to know and appreciate our neighbors,” said Guerin, a 30-year-old actress.

“I delivered groceries one day to a man who lives just one house over and was stunned to realize that I’d walked by every day with my dog and never thought to knock on his door,” she said. “After this pandemic ends, we’ve created some long-lasting friendships going forward.”

In New York City, Healy Chait, 25, Liam Elkind, 20, and Simone Policano, 25, started Invisible Hands Deliver with a handful of volunteers in mid-March, thinking they’d help a few neighbors who were in a high-risk demographic for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Now they have more than 12,000 volunteers making more than 1,000 grocery deliveries a week to all five city boroughs and to communities in New Jersey and on Long Island.

“I saw an older man with a walker in a store one day, trying to grab a huge pack of paper towels, and it hit me that we needed a way to help him and others who were at high risk of getting the virus,” said Chait, a business student at New York University.

“I figured that I should do my part to help New Yorkers who could die simply because they went out to buy a gallon of milk,” she said.

Elkind has struck up a close friendship with one of the elderly women for whom he regularly shops on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, even though they’ve never met face-to-face.

“She wanted me to come in for cookies and tea, but I had to tell her I couldn’t do that,” he said. “So we now talk through the closed door instead.”

Along with payment for the groceries, Elkind was touched that the women left a sign for him on his first delivery. “Welcome Liam,” it read.

“At a time when the world is pulling us all apart, I’ve learned that we’re still able to pull together,” he said. “And if we do pull together, then we’ll also pull through. That’s the beauty of this."

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