Doing Good Deeds: Students Find Ways to Serve Their Communities in Times of Need


Ahnsa Campbell, Staff Writer

One day students were sitting in class, and the next they were in quarantine. Even though people are confined to their homes due to the sudden circumstances of COVID-19, there are still students who are looking for ways to help their community. Whether it’s creating a global website or growing food in a backyard garden, people are stepping up and taking action even while stuck at home.

Junior Ian McKenna started his garden, called Ian’s Giving Garden, to provide free produce to people in need seven years ago. His garden, which he documents on social media, is now repurposed to provide food to people and families in the Austin area who face hunger due to struggles related to COVID-19.

“My garden project is designed to provide free produce for anyone facing hunger or food insecurity or people on a fixed income who need food,” McKenna said. “Eating healthy is expensive, so I wanted to create equal access to food resources to those who need it.”

In response to Austin’s citywide stay-at-home order, McKenna wanted to use his garden to reach out to more people during this time of crisis. However, that kind of expansion takes extensive preparation to accommodate the increase in demand.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic started closing down the city, I immediately went out to get supplies to expand my gardens,” McKenna said. “I anticipated that there would be an increased need for food. I had no idea how quickly the impact would be seen or the dramatic rise in need.”

McKenna’s garden has always been centered around providing healthy food to people in Austin who are in need, including older adults on fixed incomes, lower income communities and families within the AISD boundaries. According to McKenna, he turns no one in need down if he has food available, but the demand as a result of the pandemic has grown higher than he originally anticipated.

“I was thrilled to be able to immediately help 10 families, but was upset after I learned that there were an additional 48 families that requested help that I didn’t have enough food for,” McKenna said.

To solve this, McKenna has expanded his work by providing seeds to neighbors and other willing participants in order to have more produce. Because he is limited by the size of his own yard, McKenna hopes to reach more members of the community by spreading gardens throughout the city.

“I started sharing seeds with neighbors, students across the city and even in other states with the hopes that they would all grow vegetables to help their own families,” McKenna said. “I’ve already donated over 100lbs of homegrown veggies to AISD students and their families since schools closed in March. Knowing how many kids rely on school breakfast and lunch before the crisis, my hope is that I can continue to provide food for students in need.”

As McKenna helps people who face hunger, there are others who are in need of other basic necessities in the wake of COVID-19 and the government shutdowns. Junior Kashvi Lalchandani started a GoFundMe account in order to provide care packages with necessary items for homeless people in Austin during this pandemic.

“My goal is to receive five hundred dollars in donations to create care packages for the homeless,” Lalchandani said. “My main message I am trying to project is to help the homeless as well as provide awareness towards the lack of necessities and medication for the homeless.”

According to Lalchandani, homlessness is an issue that goes beyond the COVID crisis. She noticed this before the crisis and lockdown occured.

“On my car ride to school, I’ve always noticed the homeless people downtown sitting underneath the bridge. This issue caught my attention, and I started to do some research,” Lalchandani said. “In America, homelessness is a huge problem. During the COVID-19 situation, homeless people are unable to receive any donations from others because of social distancing.”

Lalchandani has been receiving donations through her GoFundMe page and has already begun work. So far, she has been able to pass out her care packages to those in need.

“Through the donations that I have received, I have created over one hundred care packages and delivered them to homeless people throughout downtown Austin,” Lalchandani said.

Lalchandani hopes to keep making her care packages after quarantine. She believes that the need for them will not go away once restrictions have been lifted.

“When this whole quarantine is over, I will continue the initiative by creating care packages with essential items and delivering them to the homeless,” Lalchandani said. “The issue of homelessness is still prevalent even after the quarantine is over.”

Similarly to McKenna and Lalchandani, junior Yash Patil has been finding ways to help people during the COVID-19 crisis. Patil, with the help of his brother, has created a website to provide services to people unable to easily leave their homes in fear of catching the virus.

“Helping Hands is a nonprofit built to help those most vulnerable during the COVID-19 crisis,” Patil said. “We’ve built a website that pairs those that shouldn’t leave the house, such as the elderly or immunocompromised, with volunteers that can meet their needs, such as shopping for groceries or picking up prescriptions.”

What began as a start-up where Patil joined as a co-founder and engineer has now become an international organization supported by companies such as Uber and Facebook. A person can sign up on the website to request resources and is then paired with volunteers in the local area who get and deliver these goods. According to Patil, there are very strict guidelines volunteers must follow to ensure safe transactions in order to protect the well-being of these people who are especially at-risk.

“People who fall into these categories are not able to acquire the essentials they need without incurring incredible risk, and often without additional assistance,” Patil said. “In a time when we all need to socially isolate, we want to make sure that those that lack a support network can draw on our community of volunteers to fill their needs.”

The website has been up for the past two weeks, and so far there have been 1500 users and 90 successful deliveries. However, Patil hopes to reach more and to go past the borders of the U.S. to help those in need during this time.

“I was inspired to work on Helping Hands because I felt that the most effective thing I could do as an individual in this crisis was to build technology that reaches the people that need help most,” Patil said. “This isn’t just a local project – it has the potential to help those throughout the country and across the globe. In just the two weeks we have been operating, we’ve received requests from the United Kingdom, Australia and India – all requesting that the site be launched in their respective country as well.”

To find out more information about any of these programs visit the links below:
Giving Garden