A generation-defining crisis sees youth in the Lake Travis-Westlake area lend a hand amid COVID-19 outbreak

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On the morning of May 29, Terri Jones, along with a cohort of kids and her friend Julie Zavodny, packed their vehicles with homemade lunches that were then delivered to Camp R.A.T.T. — Austin’s Responsible Adult Transition Town near Peter Pan Golf in the Barton Springs area of town.

This was Jones’s ninth trip to R.A.T.T. in nine weeks, and the group's mission remains to provide support and encouragement to the community of people experiencing homelessness.

Since their first trip to the camp, the Joneses have developed relationships with many of its residents, and what started as a grassroots family effort has become a communitywide initiative involving more than 40 families and 70 children providing meals to residents experiencing homelessness.

The effort includes students from Eanes ISD and Lake Travis ISD, and Jones said one student even put his allowance money toward food donations.

But really, the group started by the Joneses serves as only one example of how young people in the Lake Travis-Westlake area have stepped up to help their communities during a generation-defining crisis. From homemade sandwiches to handwritten letters to hand-sewn masks, local kids have shown they can fill a need when one is shown.

Helping those experiencing homelessness

By the time Jones and her crew of fellow Westlake community members wrapped up their ninth week of donations, they had delivered more than 3,500 sandwiches and myriad other food products to Camp R.A.T.T. The initiative was originally inspired by Central Presbyterian Church, which Jones said is heavily involved in supporting those experiencing homelessness.

“It’s been really cool to see the ripple effect in serving,” Jones said. “It’s also been a big eye-opening experience for all of our families involved that there are folks in our city who are in desperate need of food and shelter.”

Jones said stay-at-home orders impacted the way many nonprofits and volunteer groups were able to function, with some temporarily closing their doors, and the collection of Westlake families delivering food to the less fortunate aimed to help fill that void.

Jones’s said her children, EISD students Charlie and Mckenzie Jones, were eager to join in their parent’s acts of kindness, and as the group grew over roughly two months, more than 70 kids had begun donating their time packing lunches sent with handwritten notes of encouragement. The group has also provided tarps, toiletries, men’s work boots, coolers and other resources.

“My kids are 10 and 13, and we just felt it was really important for them to see where all of this effort goes,” Jones said, and added she hopes the group’s efforts sent a strong message to those at Camp R.A.T.T, signaling that their community acknowledges and cares for them even in the midst of a pandemic.

The Young Men’s Service League

Members of Westlake’s Young Men’s Service League have taken on a similar initiative to that of the Joneses, and have been packing sandwiches for the local nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

YMSL works to bring mothers and their high school-aged sons together in the spirit of community service and civic responsibility, according to information from the group.

Kathy Powell, head of philanthropy for YSML, said since the pandemic began most of the Westlake chapter’s efforts have centered around aiding those impacted by COVID-19, and members have been making 250 sandwiches in two-hour shifts for donation.

YMSL members are also sewing masks for staff at Central Texas Food Bank and participating in drive-thru parades throughout the community. Chapter members are no strangers to community service, but the group has had to think outside the box due to shelter-in-place orders, Powell said.

Most recently, members wrote 165 letters to the residents and staff at Belmont Village Senior Living, many of whom have not been able to see their family members in several weeks.

“There hasn’t been one boy that hasn’t asked ‘what can I do to help?’ And that’s something that puts faith in what is coming,” Powell said. “I believe that this generation is really making a difference. It would be so easy for them to do nothing.”

Despite the challenges, Powell said the group will be busy with volunteer efforts throughout the summer.

Fighting food insecurity further north

Vandegrift High School juniors Isabella Garcia and Hillary Xu launched their own charitable initiative in an effort to fight food insecurity in the Greater Austin area.

The pair organized the online initiative Operation Food Bank, which provides the community with a direct virtual donation link to the Central Texas Food Bank, the largest hunger relief charity in Central Texas.

“We decided a food drive would be our way of contributing back to our community,” Xu said. “Since we can’t do it in person right now we chose to go virtual.”

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, 17.1% of Travis County residents were living with food insecurity, an issue only exacerbated by the economic instability following COVID-19, Derrick Chubbs, the CEO of the Central Texas Food Bank previously told Community Impact Newspaper.

Garcia and Xu said they could not allow themselves to continue feeling hopeless while the community around them struggled to deal with an evolving pandemic situation.

“We can’t just stand by in the comforts of our home and watch as the days go by, with more people worldwide dying, with more Americans losing their jobs, and with some of our neighbors suddenly needing our help,” Xu wrote in an email to Community impact Newspaper.

The initiative launched May 10, and donations as of May 28 were approaching $150, but Xu and Garcia have much higher ambitions for Operation Food Bank.

“Our goal is set at $3,000 right now,” Garcia said. “We don't know how long we're going to be in this situation, so I thought the larger the goal the better.”

In an effort to increase exposure, the pair established social media accounts and are working to grow a larger following. Xu and Garcia have also arranged for an easy way to make donations, by developing two QR codes, one directly linking to the donation page and one linking to an infographic on hunger statistics.

"We just hope whatever money we raise will help someone somewhat in the community,” Xu said.

Helping alongside Austin Meals for Heroes

Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, West Ridge Middle School sixth grader Margaret Neiderer was running her own business sewing patches for local scout troops. As the pandemic progressed, Neiderer decided to use her skills to help her community.

She is now providing personal protective equipment to healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, and has so far sewn 125 medical caps for staff at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center and Heart Hospital of Austin.

The caps serve several purposes, according to Margaret’s mother, Bonnie. They protect hospital staff’s ears, which are often irritated or injured from wearing masks for long hours, and they help guard against germs.

Neiderer said she was largely inspired by her neighbor, Ann Patton, who launched the nonprofit Austin Meals for Heros in light of the coronavirus. Patton began by donating meals, but many nurses inquired about caps.

“I started doing the project because one of our neighbors started a nonprofit and they were asking for people to sew medical caps,” Neiderer said. “So I partnered with [Austin Meals for Heros] to help sew 100 caps.”

Each cap takes about 45 minutes to construct, Neiderer said. After she constructs the cap, ties and buttons are added prior to being sent to the hospital.

No act too small

When an entire community is struggling with a national pandemic it’s easy to feel powerless, Jones said, but added simple acts of service can have a large impact.

“There’s so much need in the world, and this is something so simple that we can do in our own home to serve our neighbors,” Jones said. “The feedback we’ve gotten from those on the receiving end is that they know they’re not forgotten.”

Powell said she’s also felt inspired by the community’s efforts and hopes the work they are doing will send a message that anyone can make a difference. Whether it is making sandwiches, sewing caps or writing letters, Powell emphasized there is no act that can’t benefit others where there is a need.

“When times are tough you really do see true character,” Powell said. “I tell you, this generation is so impressive.”
By Amy Rae Dadamo
Amy Rae Dadamo is the reporter for Lake Travis-Westlake, where her work focuses on city government and education. Originally from New Jersey, Amy Rae relocated to Austin after graduating from Ramapo College of New Jersey in May 2019.


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