Liam Elkind never expected Invisible Hands to be so popular, and he certainly didn’t expect Bernie Sanders to start publicly sharing his personal phone number. But when the nonprofit service for food delivery to the elderly exploded during the pandemic, that’s exactly what happened.
It started with a Facebook post. As the COVID-19 outbreak spread in March, Simone Policano wanted to do more than “stay home, stay safe.” The 25-year-old actor and producer asked her Facebook friends if anyone knew how she could volunteer to deliver food to her elderly neighbors in New York City. It turns out, that type of organization did not yet exist. So she founded it along with two college students, Elkind and Healy Chait.
The twenty-somethings quickly found that the demand for their service exceeded their ability to meet it. In the first 72 hours of launching the website, they had 1,300 volunteers and many requests for help. While their primary aim was to deliver groceries to the elderly and those with preexisting conditions so they wouldn’t have to risk their health by going to the store, another problem kept coming up: Lots of New Yorkers just needed help paying for their groceries.
Through donations, Invisible Hands started a subsidy program to buy groceries for the needy. That’s when Sen. Bernie Sanders emailed the details, including Elkind’s phone number, and the Invisible Hands team suddenly found they couldn’t keep up with demand. So they started partnering with food pantries, mutual aid organizations, and churches. “They provide the food with the funding; we provide the people,” explains Elkind.
Now, instead of blowing up Elkind’s beleaguered cell phone, people in need of Invisible Hands’ services can reach a call center. After they fill out a request form on the Invisible Hands website, a volunteer reaches out to them to make sure they get what they need. They can call the grocery store to pay, or pay the volunteer directly. Then volunteers drop off the food at their doorstep.
Charlotte Munn-Wood, one of Invisible Hands’ now ten thousand volunteers, started biking to the Bronx for deliveries in March because she wanted to give back. A music teacher, she had a dozen extra hours in her week to fill now that she wasn’t commuting.
At the peak of the pandemic, Munn-Wood was making multiple deliveries a day. Now she does a few a week, and she’s starting to make friends. She’s visited one woman in the Bronx about eight times now, and “we have a good relationship.” She adds, “It’s opened my eyes to how much I can actually help my neighbors.”
Invisible Hands operates not only in New York, but also New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and soon, Atlanta. It has received support from donors including the Robin Hood Foundation and the Brooklyn Community Foundation, as well as a $25,000 grant from the Manhattan Institute after winning its Civil Society Award.
As Invisible Hands grows, Elkind emphasizes that some recipients aren’t just craving food: They’re craving connection. One woman mentioned in her delivery request that it was her birthday. So she got a card along with her groceries.
Recently, Elkind received an email from a grateful woman from Michigan. Her father, who lived in New York City, contracted COVID-19. His daughter couldn’t travel to him, but she heard about Invisible Hands and connected her father with the nonprofit. As he quarantined, he would chat with the volunteer who dropped off his food from behind his door. They may never have seen each other, but they got to know each other over the course of several weeks. “They became friends,” Elkind says. “They would share about their lives and fears and joys.”
Eventually, the man succumbed to the virus. But, his daughter wrote, “Your help was not in vain.” In his final days, her father often mentioned the volunteer who had become his friend: the “invisible stranger.”