When demand for coronavirus vaccines was at a peak in early 2021, a wave of community advocates sprung into action to help connect Travis County residents with appointments. Now that demand has declined, groups, such as Kendra’s COVID Coaches, Austin Vaccine Angels and VaxTogetherAustin are considering the effect of their work so far—and what effect they can have moving forward.
Kendra’s COVID Coaches formed when Bee Cave resident Kendra Wright began helping friends and neighbors get access to scarce vaccine appointments in late January. Likewise, Jodi Holzband started her organization, Austin Vaccine Angels, during February’s winter storm, seeing that elderly neighbors needed help finding shots. Volunteers have carried the efforts of both groups, with around 80 volunteers contributing to Austin Vaccine Angels alone.
Both organizations are on the board of VaxTogetherAustin, a group that has likewise connected thousands of Austin-area residents with vaccines, but aims to take that advocacy a step further by providing transportation for appointments and partnering with other community organizations and businesses to host vaccine clinics for underserved communities. VaxTogetherAustin started as a “loose coalition” of volunteers from different groups, but today is a centralized nonprofit.
“We were all kind of working somewhat independently,” said Sharon Cohan, VaxTogetherAustin founder and executive director. “At some point, it became clear that collaborating was what was important, because we were now getting to the point where there was vaccine hesitancy. That’s when [the idea] of equity really started kicking in and we realized that it wasn’t just that we needed to find vaccines—we needed to help get vaccines to people.”
A glance at the VaxTogetherAustin website today shows a slate of clinics sponsored by the organization—some hosted at Austin ISD and Round Rock ISD schools, some at local Walgreens locations and some at other community hotspots. These clinics, VaxTogether board secretary Katie Van Winkle said, are the tip of the iceberg: The organization has also partnered with Todos Juntos Learning Center to increase multilingual vaccine accessibility for Spanish and Arabic speakers and has contributed to educational outreach materials produced by Todos Juntos, Capital Metro and others.
They are also focused on incentivizing vaccine uptake, offering refreshments from Kona Ice at some clinics and planning vaccine opportunities for popular festivals and events. In one case, the driver of a Kona Ice truck actually decided to get vaccinated himself after volunteers from the cheerleading team at an Atkins High School clinic persuaded him.
“[They] were incredible problem solvers and morale boosters at an event serving several hundred people,” Van Winkle said.
While Cohan and Van Winkle say they plan to focus on vaccine equity for the foreseeable future—including possibly helping with outreach for booster shots as they become available—VaxTogetherAustin has become one sub-project of a larger initiative. The organization now is a licensed 501c3, TogetherAustin, which will work on additional projects connecting people with community resources in the future.
Holzband, of Austin Vaccine Angels, said her organization will remain focused on connecting people with vaccine appointments as long as there is a need. She wants people to know the work she and her legion of volunteers have done is in reach—they saw a need and met it.
“We could come together again if there was a need in the community and sort of just go. It doesn’t need to be a slow ramp up,” she said. “It’s amazing what a small group of people who really care can do. ... We don’t need to look to organizations that are established to make change—we can do it ourselves.”
Wright shared a similar sentiment on the effect of Kendra’s COVID Coaches. In her own city of Bee Cave, where the group first launched, more than 90% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated as of June 16, she said, citing data from The Texas Department of State Health Services. The high percentage of vaccinated residents is, at least in part, a reflection of the group’s efforts, according to Wright.
By late May, Wright said there were more volunteers than individuals in need of appointments, and after more than five months, Kendra’s COVID Coaches reached what she called its “natural end.” For the 80-plus volunteers, it is bittersweet but expected, as the goal was always to “work themselves out of a job,” according to Wright.
At its peak, the group amassed over 80 volunteers, many of whom put their lives on hold despite having full-time jobs, children and other personal responsibilities. While there are no immediate plans to organize additional clinics, several group members have joined VaxTogetherAustin.
“I think the biggest thing that we provided was hope from chaos,” Wright said. “It was such an honor to be of service to the place I live.”