We are frequently told that 2020 has been an “unprecedented year.” And that’s certainly true — it’s been a year uniquely filled with crises, tragedy and sorrow. In addition to over a million-and-a-half lives lost — over 300,000 of them in the U.S. — there’s the countless everyday struggles of millions trying to make ends meet in an economy devastated by the pandemic. But that’s not the whole story of the year we’re finally about to leave behind us. It’s also been a year of people rising to the occasion, responding to the needs of others, and proving, once again, the extraordinary power of giving and widening the circle of our concern.
My favorite example to emerge this year is the amazing grassroots volunteer initiative called Pandemic of Love. Founder Shelly Tygielski calls it a mutual aid community of care. “Our grandparents, your parents, my parents, everybody used to use the phrase back in the day when people used to live in a community together… when they knew their neighbors,” Shelly explains. “People would know what was happening, but since the Industrial Revolution and the Technological Revolution, we’ve lost that human connection.”
And so Shelly decided to create some human connection. The site started very simply. On March 14th, just as the pandemic was starting to spread chaos and hardship across the country, Shelly posted two Google Docs online. One was where people could sign up to “get help” and the other was for people who wanted to “give help.” By the next morning, hundreds had responded to both forms. Shelly began matching givers with those in need. And as the pandemic spread, so did the Pandemic of Love.
The site remains that simple — you sign up to give help, or to ask for help. What’s changed is the scale: there are now over 1,200 volunteers worldwide who have started over 200 local chapters and made more than 375,000 matches.
One of those matches was between Beth Eiglarsh, from Florida, and Sean Noriega, a school teacher in New York City who was forced to leave work after a diagnosis of throat cancer. Eiglarsh went beyond just helping him buy groceries, researching what he’d be able to eat with throat cancer and sending him a 40-pound shipment of food. “What’s also nice about the Pandemic of Love, when you’re basically put into the life of somebody else, is you learn about them,” Eiglarsh told CBS News. And she also sent him money, allowing him to go to a doctor’s appointment he’d been putting off. And that was important. “Part of the money that Beth had sent me went for my transportation to go there, the co-payment, and as it was when I went there the doctor did find something else,” said Noriega. “When I say she saved my life, I don’t take that figuratively, I mean she literally did.” The two new friends have plans to meet when the pandemic is over. And that’s just one of thousands upon thousands of stories unfolding every day through the Pandemic of Love.
Shelly’s commitment to human connection started years before she launched the Pandemic of Love. In 2015, after 20 years in corporate America, Shelly started leading free guided meditation and mindfulness classes for a few friends on the beach in Hollywood, Florida. In a few years, her “Sand Tribe” grew to over 15,000. The classes are still going, and they’re still free.
Since then she’s also created two courses on Audible, “Self-Care for Turbulent Times” and “Self-Care and Mindful Resilience for First Responders,” which she’s offering free to first responders. And coming this summer will be a “Summer of (Pandemic of) Love” tour, spreading the power of well-being from a traveling Airstream pop-up. “I think that for me the most important piece is the fact that we make human connections, and that people get to really feel seen and heard and walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes to get down to the basics of empathy and love and compassion, just human connection,” Shelly told me.
Shelly and the Pandemic of Love are an inspiring testament to the power of giving, which, as science shows, is one of the most effective ways we can boost nearly every aspect of our well-being. And that’s no surprise. We’re hard-wired to connect and seek meaning and purpose. When we give, we’re happier. In a time of so much disconnection, the Pandemic of Love is a great reminder that we don’t have to leave our homes to create pathways of human connection.
As the 19th-century naturalist John Burroughs put it, “The great opportunity is where you are. Do not despise your own place and hour. Every place is under the stars, every place is the center of the world.”
You can sign up to give help or receive help here.
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