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A Montreal firefighter loads a box with food as she volunteers at the Moisson Montreal food bank on March 27, 2020.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

It started simply enough. Toronto real estate broker Nectaria Kladitis asked some older clients if they needed assistance during the COVID-19 crisis and sent a small post to her neighbourhood social media group wondering about how the community might voluntarily assist others who couldn’t leave their homes.

Now she barely has time for her paid job, which involves showing properties by way of virtual tours in this new social-distancing era.

The young realtor has since been inundated with offers of help. Two of her online contacts jumped in and took the concept to the next level, collaborating with Ms. Kladitis to create a broader platform to match volunteers in Toronto’s east end with people who need help with practical things: picking up and dropping off groceries and medications (from a safe distance), walking dogs and running other errands.

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The new website “has just exploded,” Ms. Kladitis said. A recent call-out on behalf of a medically vulnerable person who needed alcohol wipes generated an instant response. “Sure, I’ll do that. I have some in my first-aid kit. I’ll drop them off,” said one of the first to reply to the request.

Ad hoc community-support networks are springing up online all over the country, says Lisa Mort-Putland, executive director of the charity organization Volunteer Victoria. “Volunteering during COVID-19 is not business as usual.”

With so many people either laid off or no longer commuting to their jobs, “there is an abundance of volunteers,” she said.

“There’s never a shortage of good people wanting to do good things. What’s changed for many people is the freedom to be able to volunteer more. We’re not surprised that people have stepped up in such a big way,” said Ms. Mort-Putland.

Charities such as Volunteer Victoria have been so swamped with requests for volunteer opportunities that Ms. Mort-Putland and her colleagues have asked applicants to be patient, as the screening process is taking longer than usual. She now conducts daily orientation sessions for volunteers on how to help others without putting them at risk.

Christopher Mio and Meghan Hoople found themselves jobless and wanting to help in the wake of COVID-19 isolation in Toronto. After flyering their neighbourhood with a free-of-charge offer, they received an outpouring of support and requests from people in need. The Globe and Mail

Most of the volunteers on the East for East site are fortunate enough to have jobs, but their work lives have radically changed, Ms. Kladitis said. Directives to work from home, when possible, along with the cancellation of business travel and face-to-face meetings with clients, have left many with time and energy to spare. Everyone who can help wants to help, she said.

Initially, East for East had trouble reaching the people in need of this outpouring of good will, since many of the intended recipients were not online. Toronto city councillor Paula Fletcher – also with a little more time on her hands because Toronto City Council is not in session – learned of the grassroots initiative and worked her constituency network to help the website’s administrators make some of those connections.

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"Sometimes it's hard to reach people who need help, particularly seniors who are not online as much or people who have some kind of disability or issue that keeps them from being fully active. This is a great lifeline for them," Ms. Fletcher said in an interview.

The community response has been astounding, Ms. Fletcher said. "There are a lot of little home sewing shops set up making masks for Michael Garron Hospital." Constituents are calling her office to ask where they can drop off food donations. A local Bulk Barn recently provided "a whole bunch of bags," which Ms. Fletcher and her team delivered to area food banks so they can package up those donations.

All of these activities, which are tremendously valuable to the beneficiaries, also help the volunteers combat their own feelings of isolation when public health officials are advising everyone who isn't performing an "essential job" to stick close to home. Charitable work, normally a social activity, can only be conducted at a distance in the current environment, Ms. Mort-Putland said. "There's a lot of research that shows volunteering is good for our mental health and it's good for others."

It's a stressful time for everyone, Ms. Kladitis said. Helping others takes people's minds off their own problems.

Ms. Kladitis and the two others who set up and administer the East for East website all work from home. "We have never met in real life."

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