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Michelle Martinez straps on a surgical-grade face mask to prepare for work. She passes others clad in protective gear, setting about their duties for the day. This looks nothing like the job she was originally brought on for. 

Martinez stepped in to lead a small army of staff and volunteers at Tri-Valley Haven’s food pantry, navigating the dangerous circumstances to continue serving the community. Each day, they put their health and safety at risk. But each day, more come for help.

“I didn’t second guess it,” Martinez said. 

She was a manager at Tri-Valley Haven’s thrift store, which closed down in response to COVID-19. Because of his vulnerable age, the acting manager of the food pantry transitioned to remote work. That’s when Martinez was asked to fill in.

“There’s a need and I need to fill it,” Martinez thought.

Her voice carries with earnest resolve as she recalls her decision.

“I’m thinking at this point, who else is going to do it?” Martinez said. “I would feel bad if I’m at home and there’s people who need to be fed.”

And the need is rising. The food pantry has been experiencing a 10% rise in clients, and Martinez estimates the numbers will only go up in the coming weeks. 

Countless workers for restaurants, theaters, hotels, retail, fitness studios, and transportation have been laid off or furloughed indefinitely. Local shops and restaurants struggle to hang on as streets darken and empty. 

1.9 million Californians have filed for unemployment since Mar. 12, said Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recent news briefing. People have found themselves abruptly out of work.

“We’re getting calls from everywhere,” Martinez said, “different organizations that are looking for some type of outreach for their clients.”

She mentioned they even received a call from Las Positas College’s student president asking if this was a good resource for students in need.

“Absolutely, I’m not turning anybody away,” Martinez said.

Despite the virus driving people apart into the safety of their silos, those on the frontlines have come together. The food pantry has received volunteers from other organizations to aid in their efforts. 

Martinez and her crew have developed a system to maneuver the risks and restrictions. They prepare bags ahead of time and bring them curbside to ensure minimal exposure, disinfecting after each interaction. Everyone knows their role and goes about it diligently, as if they weren’t draped in protective gear and surgical masks. 

Even with precautions, however, the insidiousness of the COVID-19 is disconcerting. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, pooling researchers from the NIH, UCLA, CDC, Princeton University, has found the virus can last up to 24 hours on cardboard and 2-3 days on plastics and stainless steel.

“I can’t say that in the back of my mind, you know – yes, is there a risk of us being exposed? Of course there is,” Martinez said. “But I think we are staying focused and we need to make sure people who are living without are getting fed. That is our mission.” 

If they didn’t, people would be going without. This situation may last for quite some time. With people out of work and out of options, Martinez sees the increased need continuing until fall. 

With the chaos and fear unleashed by the novel coronavirus, it’s natural that those in stable enough positions would want to protect themselves and their families. Dressed to the nines with mask, gloves, and a spritz of lysol, they race their disinfected cars through the contaminated world before executing a fast, high-risk maneuver inside the hot zone to acquire the essentials: bread, cereal, avocados, hand sanitizer, and the last Charmin roll. 

But because of people like Martinez and her troop at Tri-Valley Haven, those who seek help will be answered.

“If there’s a time to step up, now’s the time to step up.” Martinez says.

Donations can be dropped off curbside Monday through Thursday and someone will come to pick it up. Address: 418 Junction Avenue, Livermore, CA 94550.


Amy Tilson-Lumetta is the managing and features editor of The Express. Follow her @AmyTLumetta.

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