Hercules Cares serving area’s at-risk population during pandemic
By Lou Fancher
The spirit of mythical Hercules, the strong hero known also for protecting the vulnerable, has risen in western Contra Costa County. Doing battle with COVID-19, four young adults have founded and launched Hercules Cares, a nonprofit that provides vital services to those 65 and older and other at-risk citizens in the city of Hercules.
Founder/Director DiAngelo Soriano, Co-Founder/Communications Director Czarina Catalogna, James Spilman (marketing) and Jacob Spenger (copy editor) form the leadership team and are Class of 2017 alumni from Hercules High School. Working in cooperation with the city of Hercules and local Lions Club, Rotary Club and school service organizations, Hercules Cares has 25 all-volunteer, verified participants providing pick-up and delivery of groceries and prescription medications to at-risk individuals.
A pen pal/phone pal service offers vital one-on-one social interaction for seniors isolated by the shelter-in-place order. And special and ongoing personal protective equipment (PPE) donation drives collect masks and gloves for volunteers with the surplus distributed to community shelters and city offices for broader distribution.
“I came up with the idea for Hercules Cares after seeing my mom help out her older friends with grocery shopping. I realized people who are at risk for COVID may not have the help they need to get basic groceries or medicine or may fear leaving their homes due to the virus,” Soriano wrote in an email.
Soriano turned to his friends for help — an action in keeping with Hercules Cares’ philosophy that receiving assistance from people who care is natural and crucial for maintaining strong communities.
“When he proposed the idea to me, I was fully on board because it made me think of my grandma and how heartbroken I would be to find out she is struggling to get her food and other needs due to this pandemic and social distancing,” Catalogna said.
While preparing for her fourth year studying aerospace engineering at San Jose State University and planning to graduate in 2022, Catalogna said establishing the organization was marked by early struggles, steady-to-rapid growth and tremendously uplifting surprises. She said launching the website was difficult and that early advertising consisted primarily of fliers distributed at local businesses and senior service centers. Volunteers and supportive city officials including Mayor Roland Esquivias worked to spread the word, resulting in rapid expansion.
“We targeted our volunteers to be people around our age,” said Catalogna, “but it’s not easy to get high school and college students out of their rooms, especially during a quarantine, to help other people without getting paid, or so I thought. (But now) I even see people advertising for us. It’s such a great feeling.”
Verified volunteers have a mildly more rigorous entry process involving nondisclosure agreements and a volunteer training module completed before qualifying to fulfill requests. Volunteers matched with seniors are encouraged to continue with the same people, thus establishing trust and deeper companionships. The group’s Spenger said in a phone interview that users’ privacy was considered paramount from the beginning.
“Given situations on social media and online payment systems like Venmo, where information has been leaked, we wanted to make sure their information is secure and will not be leaked to anyone.”
Similar to others on the team, personal experience while caring for his father was informative.
“I’m living with my father, who is a 67-year-old with heart disease and diabetes. He hasn’t left the house since March 17. In the past my father has had information hacked and lost money. There’s less trust between consumers and credit card companies, and if some third party takes the card and uses it, it’s not easy to resolve the problems. We wanted to make sure that seniors already struck hard by the pandemic wouldn’t have more financial loss.”
Volunteers given purchase information or medical cards allowing them to pick up prescriptions and groceries receive the information directly from the person using the service. The information is not shared online or even with Hercules Cares team leaders. Spenger said about 65 people are assisting the organization. The number includes the 25 volunteers, plus people donating for much-needed website, marketing, advertising and general upkeep services.
“For increased security, we don’t collect or release data records. I estimate we’re getting two to three calls per week,” Spenger said when asked how many at-risk citizens Hercules Cares is serving.
Most requests are for delivery of essentials like food and medications, leaving Spenger to hope the pen pal program will increase.
“Without frequent communication, at-risk people are getting a lot of their news from the internet. They aren’t able to leave their houses, so how they feel about the current situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, is bottled up,” he said.
High school graduates in the area have contacted Spenger to ask about participation in conversations — for their own benefit — and are welcome to join.
Asked how long they plan to continue the program, founder Soriano said, “I would like to keep the site running as long as the pandemic lasts to help as many people as possible.”
Whether or not they plan to expand is still to be determined. Spenger said providing services to two nearby cities, Pinole and Rodeo, would require increased advertising and volunteers. Even so, four young people with a mission to help people in their community hope their passion is as contagious as is the virus their organization intends to defeat.